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Bar Mitzvah Motivators

Bar Mitzvah Motivators

The concept of "bar mitzvah" has drifted incredibly far from its true meaning in these materialistic times.


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 recently appeared in The New York Times.

The report was ostensibly about Mr. 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. Mr. 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, he says, 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.

Dancers, decadence and the lowest common denominators of American pop culture are hardly fitting "motivators" for entering Jewish adulthood.

How horribly far the concept of "bar mitzvah" has drifted from its true meaning in these materialistic, vulgar times.

A mitzvah 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 is immune to the disease of skewed priorities, the confusing of essence with embellishment, the allowing of the true meaning of a life-milestone to become obscured by the trappings of its celebration.

In fact, a group of highly respected rabbis in the American religious 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 Mr. Hughes nor his fellow entertainers will be present.

But motivators will be everywhere.


June 14, 2003

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Visitor Comments: 15

(15) Anonymous, May 15, 2011 12:48 PM

I agree! The essence of the Bar Mitzvah is the "mitzvah".

A student of mine decided to "cram" for her Bat Mitzvah (conservative) instead of actually learning bits and pieces of her Haftorah a little at at time, each week. As the two-week mark approached, she was still not fully prepared, regardless of all the gentle 'pushing' I did to her and to her parents. Then she called to say she was missing her dress rehearsal because she had a 4-hour rehearsal with the Cirque-de-Soleil style performers with whom she would be doing acrobatics at her party for 350 guests. On Shabbat, the shul affair itself turned out to be beautiful and she actually read her portion flawlessly, I know that the "mitzvah' aspect was missing. And yet, knowing this family, this may be one of the only times she shows up in a synagogue. Perhaps the good memories will bring her back to search for more meaning someday. I can always hope.

(14) Anonymous, July 7, 2003 12:00 AM

Plenty of Bar but where are The Mitzvos?

I read with real interest Rabbi Safran's noteworthy article. My wife and I are G-d willing going to celebrate in about 6 months our oldest son's BarMitzvah.
In Australia too where we live some Bar Mitzvah parties end up being big on The Bar and food side and sometimes unfortunately a bit short on the spiritual side.
My Dad (ad 120!) is a Holocaust survivor. He celebrated his Bar mItzvah in 1942 in Bratislava (Pressburg) before the terrible deporataions of Slovakian Jewry started. As part of his Bar Mitzvah he had to say a "Pshettle" A D'Var Torah, a Torah talk. He still fondly remembers it.
It seems the spiritual side and the glowing memory just don't leave the Bnai Mitzvot unlike the other more material trappings.

(13) MESA, June 24, 2003 12:00 AM

I agree, but...

My husband and I recently returned from Israel, where we spent a Shabbat celebrating the bar mitzvah of our cousin. It was a lovely celebration, with lots of friends, family, Torah, and recognition of blessings. There were a couple of "motivators," who led the singing and dancing, and we enjoyed that.

It's true that many celebrations are becoming nothing more than showpieces. And I can't stand it when the music gets too loud (and the musicians say that people want the music loud even when nearly everyone is complaining).

However, it doesn't mean that motivators can't bring something extra to a celebration that is already focused on the specialness of the occasion, be it a wedding, bar/bat mitzvah, or anything like that.

(12) Anonymous, June 18, 2003 12:00 AM

Debra missed the Point

Debra missed the point of this article. Yes, a Jew is a Jew, and we are supposed to be trying to better ourselves, not showing off or having the flashiest, most memorable party in the world. That applies to everybody.

(11) Mel Berger, June 17, 2003 12:00 AM

Too much "fun" and food today.

As a professional musician and sous-chef for a glatt kosher caterer, I have seen it all. The "fun" at these affairs is due to the parents lack of respect for our religion and our traditions. We are lucky to hear one horah set at most affairs now. Parents and kids only seem to want the latest dances and skimpiest dressed motivators.

As far as the food, where I work there are ten or eleven stations during cocktail hour in addition to pass arounds. Next comes A four couse dinner, including four choices for the main course. Following this comes the Viennese Table with four more stations, ten or more kinds of cake, jelly apples, cotton candy, etc. There is enough food to feed whole countries. And yet, people eat like they never saw food in their lives.

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