By Rosie Bernstein
Special to the TJP
When thinking about a bar mitzvah, everyone pictures something different in their minds.
Some think of the DJ, some picture the venue, others think of the Torah service and the emotional speeches. And for the most part, these weekly simchas only vary in minimal ways. However, there are those who really think out of the box when trying to create a memorable and meaningful event.
Cara and Barry Mendelsohn did just that. Over the past seven years, the Mendelsohns have celebrated the bar mitzvahs of their three sons, and not one event looked like another.
As their oldest son, Michael, approached bar mitzvah age, Cara and Barry began thinking about the most meaningful way to mark their son’s becoming an adult. Going into the planning process, the Mendelsohns were expecting a more traditional event. They weren’t thinking about doing anything unique, and a traditional bar mitzvah suited their oldest son better than anything else.
“(Michael) loves a party and wants to go the traditional route on a lot of things,” Cara Mendelsohn said. “It just was doing what was expected, doing the traditional thing. It’s what he wanted to do and it was gorgeous.”
They hosted a service at Temple Shalom, where Michael led both the Torah service and all the prayers. Later, the Mendelsohn family celebrated with a party, complete with a custom monogram, personalized kippahs and a DJ.
“While we had a good experience at Temple Shalom doing the very traditional route, it was a formula bar mitzvah,” Cara reflected. “You meet with a rabbi, you go to a tutor, you show the cantor you can do your thing. It was just like every other bar mitzvah, except for the custom logo.”
Michael had a very positive and meaningful experience at his bar mitzvah. He remembers how impactful it was that all of his teachers and friends were there to celebrate with him.
“My faith is very important to me, but it is a private part of my life,” Michael said. “Growing up in Plano, Texas, being Jewish was very uncommon, and I felt so accepted and reassured by their attendance, gracious gifts and warm words. It was a true rite of passage or coming-of-age because not only was I demonstrating my commitment to following God’s laws, I was shown support by the ones I love too.”
The following year, the Mendelsohns’ middle son, Robert, approached his bar mitzvah. When his parents began the discussion about how he wanted to celebrate his bar mitzvah, Robert was very certain about what he wanted.
“Michael’s bar mitzvah was fun; I don’t want that,” he told his parents. “I want something very different.”
Listening to the requests of their son and molding the event after his personality, the Mendelsohns knew that Michael did not really want the big party and wasn’t interested in the attention being on him.
“He wanted it to be much more about his relationship with Judaism and Israel, and so it just made sense to be in Israel to do that,” Cara said.
Across the ocean
Contrary to the standard bar mitzvah his brother had, Robert received tapes in the mail from a rabbi thousands of miles away whom he had never met. He learned the prayers and songs in preparation for the big day and met the rabbi upon arrival in Israel.
The family’s experiences were meaningful in ways unique to Israel. The original singer of Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, Shuli Natan, sang at the reception, which the family recalls as a very cool experience. However, the service at the Western Wall was the most meaningful memory.
“But really (the most meaningful part of the bar mitzvah) was standing where you know so many people have stood before (with) that same expression of their love of Judaism. It was very powerful,” Cara Mendelsohn said.
Last year, the Mendelsohns began the same planning process they had twice before, as their youngest son, Steven, began thinking about his bar mitzvah. However, Steven was not interested in a traditional service and big party, nor was he interested in flying to Israel to celebrate in the Holy Land. All he knew was that he wanted to do something different surrounded by his family. So the Mendelsohns decided to celebrate the coming-of-age of their youngest son on a cruise ship.
The family found that the last bar mitzvah was the most personalized out of all three. The Mendelsohns asked their family rabbi of more than 20 years, Rabbi Jeffrey Leynor, to accompany them on the cruise ship and help make the experience meaningful. Leynor had never been on a cruise ship and quickly agreed to join.
“Rabbi Leynor came to our home and he personally tutored Steven, not just on prayers but also on the real meaning of his portion (and) the real meaning of being a man, his duty and obligation in Judaism and how to express that as part of his life,” Cara said.
The cruise ship staff helped the Mendelsohns make their bar mitzvah a beautiful experience. They prepared three challahs for the family and allowed them to use the chapel. A ship photographer joined, and though she was originally meant to stay for only the beginning of the celebration, she ended up remaining with the family well into the night, completely mesmerized by the bar mitzvah ceremony.
Though the three events were vastly different, they all shared similarities. The theme of connection laid the foundation for the three celebrations. The first bar mitzvah emphasized connection with community, the second focused on connection with a place, and the third was centered around connecting with family.
Additionally, all three simchas were similar in the sense that they were meaningful experiences for all involved.
“The first one was so impactful and so meaningful in our family. He was the first grandchild on my husband’s side being ‘bar mitzvah-ed,’ and we were blessed truly, Shehecheyanu, to be at that moment,” Cara reflected. “Then to stand at the Wall with my second son to be ‘bar mitzvah-ed,’ what a blessing. And then the last one was on a cruise ship in the middle of the sea, but all my family was there, and I was blessed that we were all together having such a wonderful time at such a meaningful event.”
Different plans for each
Cara and Barry caution that going to Israel isn’t much different financially than throwing a big party. However, all three types of events require a lot of planning.
“It’s a very different kind of planning when you’re dealing with a caterer, DJ (and) hotel in your own city than it is planning in Israel or planning on a cruise ship. Different events require different activities,” Cara Mendelsohn advised.
They also emphasized the importance of picking the bar mitzvah experience that’s right for your child.
“When you’re thinking about the bar mitzvahs, really talk to your child to make the bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah what is going to be meaningful for them. Put aside your own community expectations or anything else like that, and do what’s right for your child because it’s really about them,” Cara said.
Barry Mendelsohn suggests watching Keeping Up with the Steins and Bar Mitzvah Boy, two very different movies about the bar mitzvah experience, before beginning to plan.
“It’s a great way to start the conversation about what you want the bar mitzvah to mean to you and your family, and then the planning can begin,” Barry said.
The main lesson the Mendelsohns learned from the diverse bar mitzvahs of their three sons is the importance of tailoring the experience to the child.
“As parents, I think you try to help your kids find their Judaism and their connection to it in all sorts of different ways,” Cara said. “This experience should be about what they need and not necessarily what we want most.”