Here is a guide to planning a bar/bat mitzvah from a parent who has been there. Plus, what guests attending need to know.
Fact checked by Karen Cilli
Recently, I began the process of planning my son’s bar mitzvah. With so many factors to consider, including the service, the venue, and the DJ—planning a bar/bat mitzvah can be overwhelming. But as I reflect on my own bat mitzvah 27 years ago, one important detail makes today’s mitzvah scene superior to decades prior: Anything goes!
From a shortened service to a celebration at an indoor soccer field or in your very own backyard, I was pleasantly surprised to find that parents are planning unique events geared toward their child’s needs and wishes.
A bar or bat mitzvah is a once in a lifetime ceremony and celebration marking a child’s entrance into Jewish adulthood at the age of 13. It is a symbolic entryway into greater learning in the adult Jewish community and signifies the beginning of a responsibility to make moral decisions.
What You Need To Plan a Bar/Bat Mitzvah
Planning an event so special can take a lot of effort. I felt it was important to include my son in each step of the planning process. The budget aside, my son has given his preferences so that his special day is a reflection of him. I’m focusing on celebrating the person my son has become and how proud he’ll be as he sees all his hard work coming to life.
Here is a checklist for other families planning a bar/bat mitzvah based on what I used to plan for my son’s.
Select a date
Bar/bat mitzvahs typically take place on Saturdays, also known as Shabbat, or the Jewish day of rest. We chose a date that held significance in our family.
Set a budget
We first started planning for our son’s bar mitzvah the day he was born by setting money aside monthly. Bar/bat mitzvah celebrations can be a small gathering of close family and friends, a large event at a banquet hall, or anything in between. Planning ahead reduced the stress when it came time to set our budget.
Book a venue
We decided to aim for 100 guests and found a venue with space for both our son’s service and reception. Some families—mine included—don’t belong to a synagogue and, instead, plan the service at the celebratory venue.
After visiting venues ranging from indoor soccer fields to day camp recreation halls, we chose a country club that best fit our budget and space requirements. I believe the warmth of the service, the energy from the reception, and the love from family and friends can make any venue special.
Hire a rabbi
Families, like ours, that don’t belong to a synagogue, still need a rabbi to lead the service. I turned to friends and a mitzvah group on social media for recommendations. Our rabbi will travel to our venue and will individualize the service to represent our son.
My father-in-law, an experienced bar/bat mitzvah tutor, is preparing my son for his bar mitzvah service. The tutoring will prepare my son to lead the service alongside the rabbi.
My son has already learned the Hebrew alphabet and how to read the written language. Now, he is learning his Torah portion—the part of the Torah read on the date of his bar mitzvah according to the Jewish calendar. He is also learning other prayers recited during the service.
Families that belong to a synagogue will have access to a tutor there. Those planning a bar/bat mitzvah privately can turn to mitzvah groups on social media as well as Google to locate a tutor near them.
Plan the service
A bar mitzvah service can be individualized in various ways, such as the length, prayers included, and speeches given. Our son will recite his Torah portion in Hebrew as well as other prayers. Our service will begin in the late afternoon so we will end with a short Havdalah ceremony, which signifies the end of Shabbat.
Those close to my son will be honored by being called to the Torah during the service for an Aliyah—a chanting of the blessings before and after the Torah reading.
Plan a mitzvah project
Judaism teaches the importance of repairing the world and showing compassion to others. Through a mitzvah project, a child learns to give back to their community in a meaningful way.
Our son decided to focus on his love of hiking by providing supplies to those hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) this spring. He will raise money, gather supplies, and prepare tables to dispense these items along the AT on three days throughout the spring hiking season.
The first vendors I booked were the venue, the photographer/videographer, and a DJ. As these vendors can book years in advance, we made sure to solidify our choices more than a year before our event. Other vendors, including an event decorator, additional entertainment, such as a photo booth, invitations, and party favors, can be considered approximately six months prior.
Choose a theme
Choosing a theme that aligns with the child’s hobbies and favorite colors makes the celebration unique and fun! While our son hasn’t chosen a theme just yet, he is considering options related to his hiking mitzvah project and the great outdoors. I envision centerpieces of trees with long branches setting the scene to a trail in the woods—his favorite place to be.
Plan the details of reception
We plan to have a formal reception with our favorite foods, a signature martini for adults, and a non-alcoholic cocktail for the kids inspired by my son’s favorite flavors. A video montage displayed on a large screen will showcase our son throughout the years and we’ll celebrate by dancing to our favorite songs on the dance floor. The party is a celebration for him, but it’s equally as much for us as his parents.
Candle lighting ceremony
We plan to honor close family and friends by inviting them to light a candle on the cake during the reception. Dedicating a song to each person or group of people can add a unique twist to this beloved ritual.
The guest list can be as inclusive or as intimate as desired. We hope to invite our close family and friends. Most importantly, we want our son to celebrate with his friends and to be surrounded by those who love him during this special milestone.
Invitations can be sent via mail or electronically. Some recommend sending invites about six weeks ahead, while others recommend a 10- to 12-week lead time.
During the service, my son will give a speech about the meaning of his Torah portion and how it relates to his life. During the reception, my husband and I will toast our son and his journey toward reaching this milestone as we congratulate him on this special occasion.
What To Know if You’re Attending a Bar/Bat Mitzvah
If you’re attending a bar/bat mitzvah as a guest, here is what you should know beforehand:
The service is first
The mitzvah service, led by a rabbi, is a ceremony marking the child’s entrance into adulthood. The child reads from the Torah and may recite other prayers in both English and Hebrew. Guests are asked to silence their phones and refrain from talking or taking pictures. This lasts anywhere from one to three hours.
Typically, the attire for the reception is suggested on the invitation. It is common for guests to dress up in a suit or slacks and a tie or a dress/skirt. During a service in a synagogue, bare shoulders should be covered with a shawl or jacket.
Jewish men and some women wear a kippah—or head covering—as a sign of respect for God. A tallit is a fringed garment worn as a prayer shawl, which a child often receives on the day of their bar/bat mitzvah. Guests are not required to wear either item but may choose to wear a kippah provided by the hosts.
The reception is a celebration
The reception can take various forms, but many include dancing and a meal. The younger guests may also play games led by the DJ. This may last between four to five hours and may include a cocktail hour.
Typically, guests provide a monetary gift, but more unique ideas, such as a personalized prayer book or a mezuzah (a small decorative case that is hung in the doorway of a Jewish home), are always appreciated.
If a guest is unable to give a gift, they should never feel obligated; being present is the most special gift of all.
This dance marks special occasions in Judaism. Hava Nagila, meaning let us rejoice, is a Jewish folk song sung during the Hora. Linked by holding hands, it is customary for family and friends to dance in circles around the bar/bat mitzvah child and, often, they are lifted in a chair to celebrate. This high energy dance is a highlight of the reception.
What to say
Mazel tov, meaning congratulations, or “good luck” are appropriate wishes, as well as anything that expresses excitement and hope for the child’s future.
The event is very special for the family too
As we grow closer to my son’s bar mitzvah, I am excited to celebrate who he has become throughout a day that showcases his personality, his favorite hobbies, and those who love him most. I hope he learns that with great effort he can achieve anything, and that becoming a bar mitzvah means accepting the responsibility of making moral decisions and doing his part in making the world a better place. I hope this joyous day sets the tone for the rest of his life.
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