| Family First Feature |

From Boy to Bochur

Everything you wanted to know about making a bar mitzvah (and some things you didn't)

It’s universally accepted that making a bar mitzvah equals stress. How can we enjoy this milestone, make it special for our son, and still emerge with our nerves (and budgets) intact? Mothers and rebbeim bring you tips, perspective, and a little entertainment



ou've finally settled on the bar mitzvah date; now comes the big question: How much or little should the bar mitzvah bochur take on? Should he just learn to lein maftir? Maftir and haftarah? The whole parshah? Should he make a siyum?

According to Rabbi Yosef Jacobovics, s'gan menahel of Yeshiva Ktana of Passiac, there's really no rule when it comes to that. "Personally, as a parent, I gave all my sons a choice. I didn't push them. I told them, 'You can take on as much as you want, but start with something small, and we'll keep adding on as you're ready.' They began with maftir, and then went backward and learned one aliyah at a time. I advise parents to do the same."

The time it takes to focus on the "extras" — such as making a siyum, or even learning to lein — will inevitably take away from the learning the boys are doing in school. "But in the bigger picture, if it makes a boy feel successful and accomplished, you end up gaining more than you lose," says Rabbi Jacobovics.

Rabbi Hillel Drazin is a fourth-grade rebbi at the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland and has been a bar mitzvah rebbi for over 35 years, teaching hundreds of boys to lein, including two of my sons. He agrees with the mehalach of not pressuring boys. "Once the boy doesn't feel pressure, he usually does more than we expect him to. If the father or mother approaches it with the attitude of, 'I think he could do the whole thing, but no pressure,' then it usually works out.

"But parents should still show that they care about it," says Rabbi Drazin. If the parents show no interest at all, the kid picks that up also and might ask himself why he should bother. The trends of each class also make a difference. "If the boys in his class just do maftir and haftarah, then a boy is less likely to learn more unless there's a family tradition to do so."

Rochel, from Silver Spring, has made four bar mitzvahs, and while her first son leined the whole parshah, her next son was not as motivated. "I didn't handle it as well as I would have liked, and it unfortunately became a negative experience." For her next two sons, she and her husband asked them to practice 20 minutes a night. "We communicated that this was our expectation, and it was their responsibility to make sure it happened."

It's not obligatory for a boy to lein, but if parents are interested in the possibility of their son leining the whole parshah, Rabbi Drazin recommends starting around a year before the bar mitzvah. "Kids go away in the summer, you have breaks, you have vacation, so you're not going to have a full year of studying. You're going to have many breaks in between."

If a boy is interested in making a siyum, it requires even more advanced planning. When one of Leah's sons made a siyum on Shas Mishnayos for his bar mitzvah, he started learning toward that goal in  fourth grade. "This milestone can be an opportunity to prepare the boys for life," Leah notes. "Making a siyum and saying the Hadran is a life skill  they can practice now so they will have those abilities going forward."

Tailoring the Simchah to the Boy

“A bar mitzvah celebration is an opportunity for your son to make the transition from boy to bochur,” shares Rabbi Jacobovics. Some schools, like Yeshiva Ktana of Passiac and Talmudical Academy of Baltimore, even teach the boys how to behave at a standard bar mitzvah celebration. The boys are taught how to dance, and that they should go up to the baalei simchah and say mazel tov. Learning the socially appropriate way to behave at a simchah is another  step in going from boy to bochur.

“While a twelve-year-old is still a child, thinks like a child, and cares about things that adults don’t necessarily care about, it’s important that he feels good about his bar mitzvah. So, whatever kind of celebration is considered the norm in your community should be done, if possible, regardless of whether you think it’s important or not,” says Rabbi Jacobovics. “For example, it could be that there’s a certain singer or band that is all the rage, and you, as an adult with a mature mindset, know that it doesn’t make such a difference who does the music. But if that’s what the boy needs to make him feel happy for his bar mitzvah, it’s worth it to get the music he wants.”

Leah modeled this when they moved to Baltimore before the year of her second son’s bar mitzvah. “Our first son’s bar mitzvah was this out-of-town experience where we cooked a lot of the food ourselves and had the meals in the shul where my husband was the Rav. With our second son, he was the new kid, and he wanted what all his friends had. That meant having catered meals in shul and a Bo Bayom siyum at a restaurant with a band. That’s what we did because it was important to him.”

But not every boy wants the standard dancing-in-a-circle-with-dance-music kind of celebration. Sometimes thinking out of the box is just what the occasion calls for. Hadassah, from Flatbush, made her second bar mitzvah four weeks after her daughter’s wedding. “I didn’t have the koyach or the headspace to make the same kind of large event that I did for my older son,” she said. “So I asked my son what he would like at his bar mitzvah.”

Her son wanted a Chinese buffet and a kumzitz. Hadassah reserved a hall around the corner and made it happen. The food was a hit, and with dessert of ice cream cones, doughnuts, cotton candy, and popcorn, the light, fun vibe was continued. “I just really loved the informality of it. Everything was just less of a headache. It was obviously still a bar mitzvah — my husband spoke and my son gave his pshetl, but there wasn’t loud music with a lot of dancing. It was just calm and beautiful.”

Rivky from Ramat Beit Shemesh made her first bar mitzvah during their first year living in Israel. “For various reasons, my son didn’t want to celebrate it on Shabbos. He didn’t want a kiddush, he didn’t want to lein in shul. His Bo Bayom was on a Monday, so we went to the Kotel with about 25 friends and family and he leined at the Kotel, and we had a nice brunch afterwards. The following Thursday was Lag B’omer, and we were living in a massive rental at the time, so we threw a party in our house for his friends.” Her son picked the menu of mini-pita pizza, nachos, and a chocolate fountain, and they had Tamir Goodman, the “Jewish Jordan,” run a basketball workshop for the boys. “It was fantastic.”

Rivky’s second son’s bar mitzvah was during sefirah, so celebrating with dancing and music wasn’t an option. “We hired someone to run a two-hour science show. The kids put fire in their mouths and set their hands on fire, which the boys all loved.”

Don’t Stress the Details

As wonderful as it is to celebrate, someone must pay the bills. When making her first bar mitzvah, Avigail, from Clifton, was meticulous about the financial aspect. “I made a whole budget of everything we spent from soup to nuts. We weren’t looking to be cheap, but to track the expenses as a way of knowing what we were getting into for future simchahs, and to try and stay within ‘normal’ range.

“Early on, we had booked a number of things for our bar mitzvah, like the music, photographer, and singer. But then I lost my job,” Avigail remembers. “The money that we thought was going to be there suddenly wasn’t there anymore.”

Avigail had been teaching emunah and bitachon for a few years, and now had the opportunity to put all that learning into practice. “I had to constantly remind myself that Hashem sends us the money when we need it.” When all the payments were settled after the bar mitzvah, Avigail and her husband were surprised to find that their bank account looked significantly healthier than expected. “I don’t even know how it happened, but the money came when it was supposed to come, and baruch Hashem, the bar mitzvah was beautiful.”

Another big stressor is finding places to stay for out-of-town guests. Zelda, from Detroit, was expecting a lot of family to come in for her oldest’s bar mitzvah a couple of weeks after Succos. “The whole summer I was busy with finding places for everyone to stay. I was really trying to find the right hosts for each guest. In the back of my mind was one large family who I needed to keep together. I couldn’t figure out who had space for them and would also be a good fit. I was looking at my spreadsheet like seventeen times, hoping each time the perfect host situation would jump out at me.”

Eventually, someone offered to host them, but then at the last minute realized they couldn’t. “So literally the day before they were meant to come, we had nowhere to put them,” Zelda remembers. Then, out of the blue, someone texted her, asking if she still needed a place for people to sleep for her simchah. It was someone that Zelda hadn’t initially felt comfortable asking to host such a large family. “But then I thought, maybe this is Hashem sending me the solution to my problem? It turned out to be a great fit.”

By the time Leah made her fourth bar mitzvah, she didn’t even start working on the details until about a month beforehand. “And guess what? Everything was fine,” she says. A party-planner friend helped with the ordering, and she hired a wait staff to set up. A few weeks before the simchah, she sat down and figured out what needed to be ordered from food service, went to a tablecloth gemach, and had friends organize beautiful centerpieces. “I wore a beautiful dress that I already had in my closet,” she laughs. “The celebration looked very fancy, but it was very little stress.”

What’s Really Important

At the heart of the whirlwind of planning and celebrating is the boy himself. “The main thing is that the boy should have the feeling that it’s a real simchah, that everyone is happy for him and is celebrating him,” says Rabbi Jacobovics.

Throughout Leah’s years of making bar mitzvahs, her priority was clear: “The important thing was that the bar mitzvah boy should feel loved. He should feel like we’re invested in him and we’re proud of him. This is their introduction into being part of Klal Yisrael.”

When Avigail was planning her oldest son’s bar mitzvah, she wasn’t sure if she should invite all their out-of-town family for Shabbos. While it was nice in theory, it meant that, in addition to the Shabbos meals, she also had to plan for a Friday toameha, hostess gifts, guest bags, and many more details besides. In the end, she and her husband decided to go for it, and almost immediately regretted their decision.

“The logistics were really, really challenging and we kept repeating, ‘We’re never doing this again. This was just an experiment. We have three more boys after this — we’re never doing Shabbos again.’ And then Shabbos came, and it was so beautiful. I used to think that a bar mitzvah was just an overblown birthday party, but it’s so much more than that. It’s like many things in life — you put in the work, and it’s rough at times, but ultimately, it’s worth it.”

Shifra, from Chicago, was determined to make as regular a bar mitzvah as possible for her son, even though she was no longer married to his father. “My thought process has always been that it’s not my son’s fault that his parents got divorced. He shouldn’t have to make two separate simchahs, or feel stress between the two sides. The bar mitzvah is supposed to be a chizuk for him, and I wanted him to look back and have fond memories of it.”

Since Shifra and her ex-husband live in the same city, they were able to share a Shabbos celebration. The leining and meals were in the father’s neighborhood, and the Bo Bayom event, on Motzaei Shabbos, was in Shifra’s neighborhood.

Shifra was surprised by the flack she got from her family members. “They kept asking me why I didn’t push harder for the leining to be in my neighborhood, and were making noise about how they didn’t want to be in the same room as my ex-in-laws.” She had the realization that when she got divorced, she had to do the inner work to figure out how to communicate and work with her child’s father. Her family never had to do that work, and it was showing.

“I told my relatives in a joking but get-it-together kind of way, ‘I can’t help it that you didn’t go for therapy to figure out how to sit in the same room as my ex’s family. It’s not my problem. And you’re not missing my son’s bar mitzvah because you can’t figure out how to behave for one Shabbos.'” Everyone came in.

Seeing the Shift

A boy doesn’t become a man overnight, but Rabbi Jacobovics has observed firsthand how the bar mitzvah celebration wakes up something in boys. “It makes the whole thing real. The boy is in the spotlight, and everyone is coming to celebrate him. It highlights that there is a change, that something real is happening.”

One area where Rabbi Jacobovics sees change is in davening, sometimes immediately. “Davening is very challenging for kids in general,” he says. “They don’t always know what they’re saying, it’s long, it’s early. When a boy becomes bar mitzvah, it’s not that he suddenly starts to understand it more, or that he starts to feel an emotional connection. But he does actually start to count as a part of a minyan, and this brings a greater sense of ‘This is who I am. This is what I do.'”

Of course, it can happen that a boy had a geshmak party and still doesn’t seem so motivated to get up for davening or doesn’t yet connect well with learning. Rabbi Jacobovics still maintains that the celebration is not in vain. “Thirteen-year-olds today are regular boys. They’re not meant to feel that connection. I mean, we wish they would, but they’re still young. They’re not serious about life yet, and they’re not thinking about the future, but how we celebrate their bar mitzvah still makes a difference.”

After a boy completes his leining in shul, you can see the positive effect immediately, says Rabbi Drazin. “In my experience, a boy’s success in leining has nothing to do with their academic performance. It’s how motivated they are. And no matter how much or little of the parshah they prepare, they experience a profound feeling of accomplishment once they’ve finished.”

Rabbi Drazin stands right by the bar mitzvah bochur when he’s leining on Shabbos, and once the boy finishes leining, his face is beaming. “I always whisper to the boy, ‘How does it feel?’ And they reply, with a huge smile, ‘It feels great.'”

When Rabbi Drazin teaches leining, he makes sure that the boy’s voice is loud enough for the mother to hear. “I know that more than anybody else in the shul, it’s the mother’s heart that is being penetrated by her son’s leining. I know the mother is listening behind the mechitzah, thinking about all the years she put in her son.” Rabbi Drazin makes a point of finding the mother after shul to congratulate her. “And just like that smile from the bochur, I see that same glow on the mother’s face.”

Stories from the Trenches

“We made our oldest son’s bar mitzvah when we lived very out of town — the no caterer kind of out of town. I had a five-week-old baby and my mother had just had surgery to remove a brain tumor, so it was a trying time. The bar mitzvah parshah was the Shabbos after Purim, which fell out on a Thursday that year. So, I had a five-week-old, no caterer, and my whole family, over 40 people, came in that Friday and stayed until Sunday. That Shabbos afternoon, one of my sons had a medical event and had to be rushed to the hospital. Baruch Hashem, having my whole family there made it so much easier to deal with that emergency. It also gave us such clarity that the joy of having a simchah in the family overrode any details. It didn’t matter who sat where — it’s the togetherness that makes it special.”


“I once had a father who didn’t know how to lein, and he came to every lesson with his son. He wanted to learn it all at the same time so he could help his son review. Because he had learned these skills when I was teaching his first son, he was able to review with the other sons who followed. It was humorous though, because the father was much more motivated to learn than his son was!”

—Rabbi Drazin

“A father once came to me just seven weeks before his son’s bar mitzvah and told me his son wanted to lein the whole parshah. Oh no, I thought. His parshah was on the shorter side, so I told the father that I’d do the best I could. That boy was highly motivated — he learned an aliyah a week and ended up leining the whole parshah. He did a beautiful job, and now he himself is a baal korei.”

—Rabbi Drazin

“Two hours before our son’s bo bayom, there was a power outage in the shul. We weren’t sure what to do, besides panic. Should we cancel? Postpone? Switch venues? The singer we hired suggested that we move it to the next day, especially since everyone involved was available the following day. He said that whatever we do now is bedieved, and if we make the party tomorrow, we’ll at least have the lechatchila of nachas ruach and not coming into the simchah after two hours of running around like crazy. It was the best advice! The Bo Bayom ended up being beautiful and calm!”


“My son had trouble with kriah for years, so when it came time for him to lein his parshah, we hired someone who was a kriah specialist. This specialist used leining as an opportunity to get to the root of my son’s reading issue. The best part was that my son got kriah practice without even realizing he was doing it. It really worked, and now baruch Hashem he’s in an aleph-level mesivta.”


“We live in Los Angeles, and one of my son’s bar mitzvahs was a few days after a major earthquake — 6.7 on the Richter scale. The entire bar mitzvah was punctuated by aftershocks. Most of my east coast family still came, but a few uncles and aunts were too jittery to fly, so they cancelled their flights. I can’t blame them. If you’re not used to it, it’s unnerving. All the speeches had little comments about the quake!”


Best Bar Mitzvah Advice

Every simchah has its glitches. If you expect them, you can more easily accept them, and move on.

Get help. Delegate. I made a list of dishes that I needed to make and errands I needed to run, and whenever someone said, ‘What can I do to help?’ I sent them the list. It quickly got filled in!

When I was planning my first bar mitzvah, there was one piece of advice that I heard on repeat: Hire waitstaff. It’s not just because they’re amazingly helpful; it’s because you’ll be able to step out of hostess/party-planner mode and actually be present for your simchah.

Make seating charts and seating cards. It saves a lot of time at the event and simplifies things

I’d advise divorced couples making a bar mitzvah to be very clear at the outset about who is paying for what. After that agreement is made, any extras that either side wants should be shouldered by them and them alone.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 895)

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