If you’ve just received an invitation to your first bar/bat mitzvah celebration, you may be wondering just what to expect. You may also be wondering what the family will expect of you. First of all, Mazel Tov! The family sincerely wants you to take part in this important celebration. Secondly, there is no reason for concern. While you may want to put on your best face for the occasion, most people will understand if you’re not familiar with the customs and rituals.
Besides, there are many different denominations and traditions within the Jewish faith, so you’ll find that bar and bat mitzvah celebrations often vary between synagogues and families. As long as you dress and act respectfully and pay attention to the flow of activities, you’ll be just fine.
Bar/Bat Mitzvah Basics
If you’re not familiar with Jewish laws or traditions, the first important thing to understand is that the terms bar mitzvah and or bat mitzvah don’t apply to an event, but to a person. A bar/bat mitzvah refers to a Jewish child who has come of age and is now expected to behave as an adult in their faith. So, while you may attend a bar mitzvah celebration, the teen at the center of the occasion is the actual bar/bat mitzvah.
As newly minted Jewish adults, the bar/bat mitzvah is expected to participate in the religious and social lives of their congregation. The first occasion for them to do so occurs after they turn 12 for Conservative girls or 13 for all boys and Reform girls. This important transition to adult life is usually marked by the first time they read and chant from the Torah during Saturday morning Shabbat services. They may also be called upon to give a speech regarding Jewish life or law.
In short, a bar/bat mitzvah celebration is a coming-of-age for those of the Jewish faith, and you’ll find it’s usually a somber affair where the young person takes part in leading Shabbat services. What follows often varies. Depending on the denomination of the synagogue and the desires of the family, it could be a quiet Kiddush afterward held in reception rooms or family home. In other traditions, the parents host a reception party for many guests.
Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah Invitation
A modern bar/bat mitzvah celebration often follows many of the same traditions as a modern wedding. You can expect to get your invitation well in advance, and the host will expect you to RSVP as soon as possible. Many parents hire large venues, caterers and entertainment, and they really need to know whether or not to plan for your attendance.
Who should attend
One of the most important pieces of information on your invitation is the addressee. If the invitation is addressed only to you, the host hasn’t planned for you to bring a date. If your child receives a bar/bat mitzvah invitation from a friend or schoolmate, you’ll be expected to drop the child off. Unlike many of the children’s birthday parties you’ve experienced up to now, the host will not expect or invite you to join them or have time to stop and chat.
Other helpful information you’ll find on the invitation will be, of course, the name and address of the synagogue and the location and formality of any reception party afterward. Many parents also include any dress code for the service. This is particularly helpful since standards of appropriate dress can vary among different denominations and synagogues.
What’s the schedule
You’ll also find the date and time of the event on the invitation. In most cases, the bar/bat mitzvah will do their first Torah reading at a Saturday morning service. The time on the invite will be the time that religious services begin in the synagogue. This is the time you should arrive for the event.
You’ll also get the date and time of any party for the celebration. In Judaism, the Sabbath (Shabbat) starts at sundown on Friday night and lasts till sundown on Saturday night. Oftentimes, parents will schedule the reception party after sundown on that Saturday evening so that none of the festivities conflict with Shabbat restrictions such as playing music or drinking alcohol. This accommodates the needs of observant Jews attending the event.
Some parents schedule the reception party several days after their child participates in their first Shabbat service. You may receive an invitation to one or both of these events. Either way, your invitation should help you find the right location on time.
Preparing for the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Celebration
Before you attend the service and the party, you should choose the right outfit to wear. It’s also appropriate to bring a gift to the reception.
What to wear
Every synagogue and denomination has its own opinions about dress codes. However, its safe to say that conservative wear is the order of the day. Remember that you will be going to a place of worship, so dress modestly. Since it’s a special occasion, your outfit should also be somewhat dressy. For men, suits fit the bill nicely. For women, a dressy suit or pantsuit or a semi-formal dress will do.
If the parents schedule the celebration at a hotel or party venue, the dress code for the party only may be different than that for the service. Consult your invitation for guidance or call your host and ask for advice. They’ll be best able to help you choose the right ensemble.
What to bring
It’s traditional to give the bar/bat mitzvah a gift on the occasion. For the most part, money is also a good option. In fact, in Israel, people only give cash on this occasion. Parents will usually put the money into the teen’s college fund or into a savings account for later.
You can also give something special to commemorate the day, such as jewelry or other small items of significance.
Either way, don’t hand over your gift at the service — save it for the party afterward.
Attending the Synagogue Service
In Jewish tradition, men cover their heads with a kippah whenever in prayer. For Orthodox Jews, men always wear some type of head covering. In progressive Jewish denominations, such as Reform, Reconstructionist, and even some Conservative congregations, women may also wear a kippah during prayer. If you are male, you should wear a kippah when entering the synagogue. Most have yarmulkes available for guests, so don’t fret too much if you don’t own one. In fact, many parents have keepsake yarmulkes made up for guests for the occasion. You should wear it, even if you’re not Jewish, as a sign of respect.
You may see men and sometimes women entering wearing a tallit, or prayer shawl. While an usher at the door may offer one to you, the tallit is a religious item that reminds the wearer to observe Jewish law. You don’t have to wear the tallit if you don’t feel comfortable wearing it.
The Shabbat service
Most Shabbat services last from one and a half to two hours, though some may run a little longer.
You may find that Jewish services are a bit more active than ones you’ve attended in the past. The congregation may stand or sit during different parts of the service. While you may not be able to follow along completely, you should find a prayer book, or siddur, with the service in either Hebrew or English to help you. There may even be a program in English to help you along.
No one will mind that you’re not following along perfectly, so don’t let it make you anxious. In this case, muddling along the best you can is the wise course of action.
What does the bar/bat mitzvah do during the service?
During the service, your bar/bat mitzvah boy or girl will step up to the bimah and read (chant) from the Torah. They may also give a speech about the section they’ve read. Family members often participate, also reading or chanting and giving a speech for the big occasion.
Your best behavior
While congregations vary in religions strictness, there are a few rules to follow that should serve you well in any synagogue. Some are just a matter of good manners, others, such as smoking, drinking, or taking photographs, are not permitted on Shabbat.
- Turn your phone ringer off.
- Don’t take photographs during the service.
- Do not talk or write during the service
- Do not smoke or drink alcohol on the premises
After the service
There may be an informal Kiddush in the social hall at the synagogue after the service. This can be a light meal or snack and gives the family a chance to meet with all the well-wishers who attended. The parents may have also arranged a more elaborate lunch party at another location or a reception party later that evening. Your invitation will provide details.
The Reception Party
Much like a wedding, the lavishness of the celebration can vary according to a number of factors, such as the wishes of the bar/bat mitzvah and the parent’s budget. Some may feature a cocktail reception and then a seated dinner, others may feature a more casual buffet. In either case, expect drinking, games, speeches, and dancing – very much like a wedding.
The reception typically often starts with a cocktail hour for the adults and soft drinks for the under-21s. The kids may be greeted with organized games to play. The event may include an open bar or a cash bar, so make sure you bring along some folding clams just in case.
Dinner follows with either seating or a buffet, and you may have an assigned seat. Often, they seat children separately for the meal. A rabbi may say a blessing over bread and wine before the meal.
You may see a grand entrance where the DJ or bandleader announces the new bar/bat mitzvah and introduces them to the crowd. Frequently, the hora follows. In this traditional dance, the guests form circles, grab hands, and dance from left to right. The new bar/bat mitzvah is lifted onto a chair during the dance. You may have seen the hora performed at Jewish weddings or in the movies. Sometimes, the family is also hoisted up, so if you have some muscle power, feel free to help out.
Another ceremony, called the “candle lighting,” gives the newly adult bar/bat mitzvah a chance to honor and acknowledge the influential people in his life. He or she will light a candle for each person they honor during the candle lighting. The teen will give a speech about the person, who then lights the candle with them.
Have a Blast at the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Celebration
While the synagogue service is a somber religious event, you can expect dancing, eating, drinking, games, speeches, and much revelry during the reception, which lasts about three or four hours. A bar/bat mitzvah celebration is a joyous, once-in-a-lifetime occasion. Children study and work for years to prepare for this momentous occasion. Enjoy yourself, have fun, and don’t forget to say “Mazel tov!” to the family and the bar/bat mitzvah kid before you leave!