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Pinched pocketbooks no bar to party planning

Cut the costs, not the fun

By Judy Gruen

November 13, 2008 | 6:14 pm

Pinched Pocketbooks NoBar to Party Planning

Have tough economic times forced you to scale back your child's bar or bat mitzvah party plans? With your 401(k) down, is the ice sculpture out? Is your resetting ARM making you reconsider that 18-piece orchestra?

If so, you can still have one of the best bar or bat mitzvah parties ever.

Paul, who lives in the northern Sierras and preferred not to use his last name, was pleased with the modest bar mitzvah party he and his wife hosted last month for their son.

"We had a Kiddush at our little synagogue immediately after the bar mitzvah and a catered dinner for about 75 people at the lodge building at our town's public park," he said.

Paul spent about $40 per person, including food and "midrange" wines. After dinner, guests were invited back to the house, including many out-of-town relatives and friends, for more time to visit and socialize. The kids had their own fun, and music was provided via a Bose iPod dock.

This modest party wasn't prompted as much by economic pressure as it was by being turned off by what Paul and his wife considered "large, garish bar and bat mitzvah parties" they had attended on which "embarrassing" amounts of money were spent.

"We frankly think it is shameful and a violation of both the tenets of Judaism and good taste to throw a huge and lavish bar or bat mitzvah party," Paul said.

Paul's hardly alone. When Rob Frankel and his wife planned their daughter's bat mitzvah, they were so turned off by their synagogue's onerous rules (including vetting the parents' speeches) and insistence on using an expensive caterer, that later they did their son's bar mitzvah totally on their own, from using a "rent-a-rabbi" to teach their son and provide a rental Torah scroll and bimah.

"The whole year's training and day of service cost less than a year of temple membership dues," Frankel recalled.

The Frankels also saved money by creating their own save-the-date postcards, invitations, tribute videos and thank-you cards.

Rabbi Steven Leder, senior rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple and author of "More Money Than God," encourages all parents planning bar and bat mitzvah parties to keep the focus on Judaism and on the child. When he meets with parents, he asks them to make two lists: one of values they consider Jewish and another of values they associate with bar/bat mitzvah parties.

The lists are starkly different. While the Jewish values list often includes sacred music, spirituality and community, the list of values associated with the bar mitzvah parties can include sexuality, gross excess, drinking and narcissism.

Leder has found this exercise very useful.

After discussing the values gap between the bar mitzvah service and the typical bar mitzvah party, "parents feel they have permission to embrace a more child-appropriate event and one with more Jewish content," he said.

He recommends that a Saturday night party begin with a Havdalah ceremony and that parents should be more discerning about the music played at the event. He also encourages that some money be donated to MAZON-A Jewish Response to Hunger. One creative mom at the synagogue, tired of seeing party favors that went to waste, began doing mitzvah projects at parties, such as having kids make stuffed animals, which are then donated to a children's hospital.

Leder also keeps parties held at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in line by insisting on no hard liquor, no amplified music outside and no inappropriate décor or themes, such as Halloween.

"We're trying to avoid glaring contradictions to Jewish values," he noted. "Besides, kid-friendly parties automatically save money."

Chai'le Ingber, a Los Angeles-based party planner, says that times are changing when it comes to money and party planning. She acknowledges that while most people able to hire a planner aren't the ones feeling the pinch as much as some others, she has found lately that some are choosing to scale back, so as not to flaunt their wealth at a time when so many others are hurting or are earmarking some money that would have gone to the party to tzedakah instead.

Ingber recommends that anyone who can host a party at home do so.

"There's always something so special about a home party, when friends have helped out. Leave out the hall and the band if you can. You'll cut major expenses, while creating a beautiful, homey event," she said.

Inger even overheard her daughter, who recently completed her bat mitzvah circuit year, agree with friends that the most fun parties they had attended were home-based, because they were not done to impress adults but were geared to what the girl wanted.

Other ideas to save money include using a school auditorium or nonhotel venue.

"With a little creativity and twist you can transform even plain rooms into a themed room," Ingber said.

After choosing a theme or colors with your child, inexpensive crafts and flowers can be found in a variety of stores downtown. And paper plates and plastic cutlery can still add color while saving money.

"The truth is, community pressure to create a certain kind of party can be intense, but it's not the $500 cake that makes the party; it's the hosts and the child who welcome you into their home or the hall who make it special. If the hosts are stiff and stressed, it's worthless," Ingber said.

Aaron Cooper, psychologist and author of "I Just Want My Kids to Be Happy," hopes that more parents begin to see the upside of financial adversity in the form of valuable lessons learned and resilience developed.

Too many bar and bat mitzvah parties, he notes, have been marked by the worshipful emphasis on the child that colors so much contemporary parenting, yet spirituality and a sense of meaning are two of the ingredients essential for happy lives.

"What do we want the outstanding memory to be when our son or daughter looks back from middle age to their bar or bat mitzvah event? If a pinched pocketbook helps parents re-think this question, it's the kids who will reap the dividends someday," he said.

Judy Gruen's latest book is "The Women's Daily Irony Supplement."


Cut Costs, Not the Fun

Want to keep your costs low without alienating your family, friends and fellow congregants? Consider these tips from the proud survivor of a bar mitzvah party.

  • Buy a planner notebook and organize everything yourself, instead of hiring a party planner.
  • Skip the banquet hall and rent a neighborhood or community clubhouse, large room at an activity center or school assembly hall.
  • Cater through your favorite restaurant, instead of using a restaurant or banquet hall that only has package deals or would be more costly. If you get a package deal somewhere, read the fine print: There are invariably all kinds of strange charges, such as corkage fees, cake-cutting fees, charges for valet service and security.
  • Make your own centerpieces, adding a few balloons on top, with confetti sprinkled around the base. Decorate simply -- sometimes too much really looks like too much.
  • Design and print your own invitations, RSVP cards and placecards. Today's online paper businesses and PC applications make this easier and more beautiful than you could have imagined five years ago.
  • If your synagogue allows it, have your friends make the desserts and/or oneg sweets instead of buying them from a bakery. Get all of your beverages -- alcoholic and no-alcoholic -- on your own from a place like Costco, Trader Joe's or BevMo.
  • Have your dinner for the out-of-towners in a Chinese or Italian restaurant that serves family-style platters -- this cuts way down on the cost of individual meals.
  • Have a luncheon instead of a bar mitzvah dinner because lunch typically costs less. Alternately, forgo one really huge celebration and have two little ones -- a casual oneg luncheon and then a kids-only party in the evening.
  • Interview and hire a photographer who will give you the disc with all of your photos, and you can make the album yourself online, with the help of a service like Flickr.com. It's a very easy process once you learn how. Making the album yourself costs about one-half to one-third of the traditional proofs-and-album route.
-- Denise Koek, Contributing Writer

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