Meet Lorne Hughes, a young non-Jewish gentleman from the Virgin Islands clad in a form-fitting black outfit, who "regularly spends his weekends dancing with 13-year-olds at bar mitzvahs," according to an article that appeared in The New York Times on May 30, 2003.
The report was ostensibly about Hughes' "lucrative and competitive" profession -- he is a "party motivator." But its detailed descriptions of the devolution of bar/bat mitzvah celebrations in some circles could only have left any reader sensitive to the Jewish religious tradition deeply depressed.
Party motivators are paid to attend bar mitzvahs and other events to make sure "that young guests are swept up in dancing and games," according to the report. Hughes was described as smiling ecstatically at one bar mitzvah" as he danced to Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez songs with middle school students [and with their parents]."
"Whether you can have a successful bar mitzvah without at least a handful of motivators," the article asserts, presumably in the name of parents who employ such services, "is debatable."
One female motivator at a bar mitzvah "in a black tank top" was observed at the "children's cocktail hour" enthralling the 13-year-old boys in attendance.
"She just talks about, like, sex and girlfriends," explained one of the young men, clearly motivated.
Some of the parents are similarly adolescent. While sometimes, the report notes, "they request that their motivators dress modestly -- sometimes they request the opposite."
"Dads especially" often indicate their preference for provocative women motivators, according to the owner of one entertainment agency. Then he heads, unconsciously alighting on an apt metaphor, "to our stable of people" to find the right one for the job.
Were it all a Purim skit, it would be, if in poor taste, perhaps funny. As reality, though, not even the word "tragic" does it justice.
How horribly far the concept of bar mitzvah has drifted from its true meaning in these materialistic, vulgar times.
A mitzvah, of course is a commandment, one with its source in the ultimate Commander. And the "bar" refers not to what a bartender tends but rather to the responsibility of the new Jewish young adult to shoulder the duties and obligations of a Jew -- the study and observance of the Torah.
And so, a truly successful bar mitzvah is one where the young person has come to recognize that responsibility. Dancers, decadence and the lowest common denominators of American pop culture are hardly fitting motivators for such.
The issue is not denominational. There are excesses to be found in celebrations of Orthodox Jews as there are in those of Jews of other affiliations. While the motivators phenomenon might represent a particular nadir of Jewish insensitivity, none of us are immune to the disease of skewed priorities, the confusing of essence with embellishment, the allowing of the true meaning of a milestone to become obscured by the trappings of its celebration.
In fact, a group of highly respected rabbis in the American Charedi (ultra-Orthodox) community, have called for their followers to tone down wedding celebrations (where party motivators are unneeded to get people dancing but where excesses of food and trimmings are, unfortunately, not unheard of). And many of us have taken the initiative to do the same with other celebrations as well, including bar mitzvahs.
As it happens, one of my own sons is, at this writing, about to celebrate his. He will read the Torah portion on the Shabbat after he turns 13, but for the Wednesday before, his Jewish birthday, my wife and I are planning a modest meal for relatives and a few friends -- and, of course, our son's friends and teachers.
There are only three things on the agenda for the evening:
My son will deliver a d'var Torah (a discourse on a Torah topic) and each of his grandfathers will say a few words.
My wife's father will likely, as he always does at family celebrations, thank God for allowing him to survive the several concentration camps where he spent the Holocaust years, and where he and his religious comrades risked life and limb to maintain what Jewish observance they could.
And my own father will surely feel -- and may well express -- the deep gratitude he feels to the Creator for protecting him, during those same years, in a Siberian Soviet labor camp, where he and his fellow yeshiva students similarly endured terrible hardships to remain observant, believing Jews. Both grandfathers will take pride in how their children's children are continuing the lives and ideals of their parents' parents, and theirs before them.
And I will pray that my son will grow further to recognize the mission and meaning of a truly Jewish life, and follow the example of his grandfathers and grandmothers, parents and siblings, uncles and aunts and cousins, many of whom will be there to celebrate with him.
Neither Hughes nor his fellow entertainers will be present, but motivators will be everywhere.
Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.