Bar Mitzvahs Gone Wild: Can We Create Meaning Amid Excess?

When we focus on creating meaning through ostentatious celebration, we forget what bar mitzvahs are really about: responsibility and ownership.

“I would never do such a thing.” That was my initial thought when I watched Sam Horowitz’s bar mitzvah dance. But a moment later, another thought replied: “Whom am I kidding?”

Before I became a parent I would have been purely judgmental and all high and mighty about how I would never ever make such a spectacle of my child. But once I become a parent, all bets were off. I am nearly 18 months into parenting and I can promise that I have done so many things for our children already that I would have sworn I would never do before they arrived. So I watched the video with rapt attention and obsessed over the article about it. Apparently I wasn’t the only one; The YouTube video has had more than 750,000 hits so far.

As I watched the video again and again, I wondered, “Was this really a bar mitzvah celebration? Has the Jewish world really come to this?” While oberving Sam’s face and his general demeanor, I started to notice something: He seemed well poised and joyful. He was relishing the moment; creating, it seemed, an unforgettable memory – a holy moment if you will. There was something about what happened to him in this giant spectacle that made me pause and reflect on my initial reaction of disapproval and see it as a parent. There was something, well, meaningful about watching a child shine in this way.

Yet, it was as a rabbi and committed Jew that had me view this bar mitzvah party as problematic, to put it mildly. It is ostentatious in a way that does not only border on offensive but goes over the line. The money we now spend on bar and bat mitzvah celebrations could certainly be better spent on combating a whole host of issues that face the Jewish community and the world at large. From the costs of institutional Jewish life to hunger and poverty in America, we could pool our resources and impact some serious change. For what Sam’s parents alone spent on this spectacle could be a boon for some major American Jewish community or homeless shelter or charity. Not to mention how the excess makes so many families feel left out, different and unable to compete, or encourages them to compete well beyond their means. Even people who are not Jewish seem to want these types of parties for their children.

These over-the-top bar and bat mitzvah celebrations reflect a larger societal issue – parents seeking meaning for their children in the wrong places, including attempting to create meaning through celebration. In part, I understand the instinct: Give your kids everything you can to make their life joyful and rich. We want our kid to shine, to feel celebrated for reaching this moment, this milestone. But being bar or bat mitzvah, “one who is responsible for the Commandments,” is about responsibility and ownership - not about dancers and shows. Is it really possible to convince parents to change their minds about these ostentatious affairs? Perhaps not. But we can encourage them to pursue another path.

Parashat Kedoshim, at the literal center of the Torah, opens with the verse, "Ye shall be holy; for I the LORD your God am holy" (Leviticus 19:2) and concludes with, " And ye shall be holy unto Me; for I the LORD am holy" (Leviticus 20:26). In between those bookends, this centerpiece Torah portion reminds us through its abundant mitzvahs of the need for employers to treat their workers justly, to be honest in business, to treat the rich and poor alike, not to take advantage of the ignorance of others, not to indulge in inappropriate sexuality, and to respect one’s parents and the elderly. It includes some of the most powerful ethical teachings of the Torah, such as, " love thy neighbor as thyself " (Leviticus 19:18).

Becoming a bar or bat mitzvah is an invitation to live a holy life. Our job as parents and as a community is not to create meaning through pleasure, but through depth, joy and wisdom. What we need to create for Sam Horowitz and his fellow bnei mitzvah are Jewish lives abundant with ritual, community and God. We should focus on making Judaism an entrenched part of their identities, such that they feel like Jewish superstars, rich with tradition and Torah. Once we figure out how to make the bimah the real stage for our bnei mitzvah and their families, then we can let the celebrations begin!


Rabbi Elianna Yolkut works throughout N.Y.C. and beyond teaching, speaking and writing Torah. You can find her at www.rabbielianna.com