There was no question that the Danskys of Livingston, New Jersey, were going to have their children bar and bat mitzvahed. There was also no question of joining a synagogue to do so. “We’re not that religious,” explained Tracy Dansky, a mother of three.
So she and her husband did what a lot of their neighbors were doing: They hired a rabbi, had their daughters tutored in Hebrew and booked a private room for a joint ceremony at Lucky Strike, the Times Square bowling alley.
A few years later, with her youngest, Max, approaching bar mitzvah age, Dansky took it up a notch. She hired Ellen Paderson, a Massachusetts-based specialist in destination events, to arrange a beachside bar mitzvah for Max at an all-inclusive resort near Cancún, Mexico.
“It was a really great time,” said Dansky of the March 2018 event. Thirty-five friends and relatives joined for a five-day getaway that included a golf outing, a sunset catamaran cruise and Max’s ceremony, officiated by a retired rabbi.
Despite all this, “it cost less than doing a fancy party like people do here” in New Jersey, Dansky noted. “It was a more economical choice, and it lasted longer.”
The Danskys are part of a growing trend: b’nai mitzvahs that take place outside the traditional framework of synagogue and Hebrew school. Rabbi Gidon Isaacs, the assistant rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, calls the shift generational. Younger Americans “are not joiners,” he said. “They weren’t raised with membership as a value.”
The opt-out mitzvah can take many forms. Most families hire a rabbi or cantor for private or small-group tutoring, and to officiate. Six months to a year of weekly sessions is typical — though some children study for years, approximating the depth and breadth of Hebrew school. Venues are golf clubs, banquet halls, destination resorts and even private homes.
“People are getting more into doing it outside of a temple,” said Paderson, whose b’nai mitzvah business has exploded in the past 15 years. Like others who cater to DIY families, Paderson handles everyone from interfaith families to special-needs children who aren’t comfortable in Hebrew school.
All-inclusive Mexican resorts, cruises and Italy are favored destinations; Paderson works with local officiants as well as a cantor who tutors via Skype and flies where needed. The average family spends $3,000-$5,000 on the event, with an additional $2,000-$3,000 for the preparation and clergy.
Though the cost may be less than years of synagogue dues and Hebrew school, money is not the motivator for most DIY families. More commonly, it’s the collision of twice-a-week Hebrew school with the myriad obligations of today’s hyperscheduled tween. Boredom with Hebrew school, and lack of connection to synagogue or organized religion, are other commonly cited factors.
Missy Gerber, a stay-at-home mother of three in Morristown, New Jersey, sent her kids to temple preschool and several years of Sunday school. “They hated it,” she said. “They only have two days off from school, and one of them, they’re back in the classroom.”
Then there was the tug of sports and other extracurriculars. The Gerber boys “kept missing things” with their friends, their mom recalled.
Yet once Danny, the oldest, hit middle school, “I thought: I still want him to have a bar mitzvah.” Gerber hired Cantor Scott Borsky to tutor Danny for a year before his 2016 bar mitzvah at a country club; she did the same for her middle son, Jack, who had a backyard ceremony last year.
Many families, including the Gerbers, appreciate the privacy of a DIY event.
“If you have a normal synagogue bar mitzvah, there are hundreds of people in attendance, and that’s a lot of eyes on you, especially if you’re not super confident,” explained Gerber. Her sons’ affairs were fairly typical, with around 35 guests.
“It was a great experience, having all my family there,” said Danny. “And I felt I learned a lot.”
Learning is perhaps the most contentious variable of a DIY event; in the absence of a formal Hebrew school curriculum, it’s up to the family and the officiant to decide what Jewish education means. The private route is typically more abbreviated — but it’s also more personalized.
Some are troubled by a trend that chips away at the fabric of Jewish communal life, but Rabbi Julie Greenberg, who has shepherds kids through an alternative b’nai mitzvah program noted that today’s Jewish communities simply look different.
“One goal I have is to help kids become part of a community,” said Greenberg. She does this by creating a cohort of independent learners. At any given time, five to 15 youngsters attend a Sunday afternoon school at her home.
Many of her families aren’t interested in religious Judaism, “which is still the focus of most synagogues,” she added. “But they want Jewish literature, Jewish values, Jewish ideas, Jewish culture. My goal is they can step into a Jewish experience anywhere and feel some familiarity.”
Borsky makes an individualized prayer book for each of his students and guides them through a personal mitzvah project.
“It’s not just about learning the Shema, the Mi Chamocha,” he emphasized. “It’s about becoming a son or daughter of the commandments.”
This year, Borsky will officiate at his 2,100th DIY mitzvah. He left his temple job nearly a decade ago to found the organization Synagogue Without Walls.
Missy Gerber, for one, is a satisfied customer.
“Cantor Scott really taught about the religion,” she said. “It wasn’t just like, ‘Here, memorize this thing that has no meaning to you.’” The DIY approach, Gerber added, “really helped my sons get in touch with their Judaism.” JN
A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish Exponent, a Jewish News-affiliated