Choosing mitzvah over bar: event planners help families prioritize, alleviate stress

French Jews celebrate a bar mitzvah in a synagogue in Paris June 6, 2012. Credit: Serge Attal/Flash90.
French Jews celebrate a bar mitzvah in a synagogue in Paris June 6, 2012. Credit: Serge Attal/Flash90.

By Deborah Fineblum/

When the time came to plan her older son’s bar mitzvah nine years ago, Stacie Bartfeld freely admits she knew it was coming up.

“But I work and didn’t have the time to start from scratch,” she says. “And when it comes to putting together a bar mitzvah, I didn’t have a clue.”

So when she heard about bar/bat mitzvah planning pros who can take the sting out of what can be a stressful experience, the San Diego mom was sold. But alas, her husband, Neil, was resistant to the idea—so much so that, the first time she spoke with event planner Sherrill Kinsler Gilford, it was from the privacy of her walk-in closet, where she was certain not to be overheard.

Bartfeld says the benefits of consulting with Gilford were impressive, including helping with such basics as the food, décor, prizes and music, for their roughly 200 guests. “And I knew that, no matter what came up in advance or even on the day of, she would intercept it,” she says.

As bar/bat mitzvah festivities around the country trend towards more elaborate and complicated undertakings, the event planner recalls her own brother’s relatively straightforward rite of passage celebration.

“After the service, there was some food and a little dancing and then everyone went home,” says Gilford, who runs RSVP Events of San Diego with Rachel Wood. “Now there are so many moving parts that having us onboard means they can actually enjoy their own simcha (joyous occasion).”

That was a common theme with the event planners interviewed by From big-picture decisions, like helping clients choose from what can be an overabundance of competing venues, caterers and music options, to minutia like running around at the last minute in hot pursuit of batteries for table centerpieces, planners can take some of the weight off parents’ shoulders.

They can also acquaint parents with the latest trends. Among them, according to Terri Bergman of Washington, D.C.-based Terri Bergman Events, is one toward unassigned seating and shorter parties, as well as “environments” rather than the more traditional concept of themes. “We’ve even recreated [New York’s] Central Park,” says Bergman, who cheerfully admits to “being known for stepping out of the box a little.”

With many of her clients spending anywhere from $20,000 to $150,000 on their children’s bar/bat mitzvahs, Bergman has learned to be flexible. One memorable event coincided with the great Northeastern U.S. blizzard of 2001. Her clients were insistent on holding their bar/bat mitzvah parties regardless of the snow piling up all around them. The upshot was that many young guests from a different canceled bar mitzvah came to her clients’ party. Bergman approached the local Hummer dealership to rent their tank-like vehicle to pick up stranded vendors and band members, the planner recalls.

“Against all odds, the show went on,” Bergman says.

The show itself is often an extravaganza when it’s in Beverly Hills. So says Mindy Weiss, whose business, Mindy Weiss Party Consultants, serves an elite clientele in southern California.

“When they’re hiring me, they’re getting heavy décor and often name acts,” such as music producer and radio personality DJ Khaled, Weiss reports.

“In Hollywood, anything is possible,” she says.

Weiss highly recommends that first-time bar/bat mitzvah moms and dads hire an event planner. “Yes, it’s a luxury, but it also takes off the stress. The rabbis say there is too much bar and not enough mitzvah today. We can help by freeing the parents to spend time with their child,” she says.

San Diego-based Gilford strongly agrees, saying, “When we run the party, the family and the bar or bat mitzvah child can focus on the service. That’s the basic idea of hiring us.”

For Weiss, the bar/bat mitzvah experience is all about transitions and transformations. “They practice and work on this for months, and they go from being a child to a young adult who can get up in front of everyone and read from the Torah and speak from the heart,” she says.

“They’re communicating and participating and that demands a new a maturity,” Weiss adds.

Perhaps the highest praise for having a planner came from Neil Bartfeld, who went from skeptic to believer in a few short months. He cornered the planner, Gilford, at his first son’s bar mitzvah to secure a promise to direct their younger son’s celebration three years later.

“What changed my mind? I could see how easy things were made for us, with her taking care of vendors and all the other details,” he says nine years later. “All we had to do was concentrate on enjoying ourselves. So it was a no-brainer to book her for the second one, too.”

Even if their connections with vendors don’t serve to recoup the entire cost of a planner’s services, the father notes that “what you do recoup is some of your sanity and that is also very valuable.”

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