Q My oldest child will turn 13 next May, and my husband and I have begun discussing what to do for his bar mitzvah. He is our oldest and we are really excited about the simchah. We have been attending the simchos of our friends in the community, and many of them have been beautiful. Maybe I was naïve, but when I asked around about the approximate cost, I could not believe how much people spend. Both my husband and I work full time and earn reasonable salaries. Although we don’t live extravagantly by any means, baruch Hashem we are able to pay the bills and provide for our family. I just don’t think its possible for us to shell out that kind of money. At the same time, I want my son to be happy and not be embarrassed by having something less than his friends. Any suggestions?
A Thank you for the question. I am quite sure you are not the only one facing this dilemma. It is an unfortunate reality that people regularly borrow money and go into debt to pay for a simchah. Does it need to be this way? Should we just accept that this is one of the facts of life in our community? I know Rabbanim over the years have tried to enact “takanos” to prevent extravagant affairs and the social pressures they can bring. For whatever the reasons are, they haven’t stuck. (Although to be fair, there are some communities that have been able to adopt these). To be honest, I have some strong feelings about this, so I hope I don’t offend anyone with what I will say.
Are we considering that we may need to work for 3 to 6 months to repay what we spend in one night – one night where many of the people who come would rather be somewhere else? One night where no matter how nice we make it, or how much effort we put in to impress others, people will still complain and criticize? One night where the actual simchah might become so meaningless as it is swallowed up with so many other concerns? One night where we will all wake up the next day and have to face our regular bills without a clear plan of how to cover them? We know that financial pressure can impact marriages, lead to questionable business practices, and tremendous stress. Is there a way out of this, or are we all part of a system with no room for change?
I would like to believe that this isn’t the case, that we do have the option to do things differently and not feel obligated to follow the trend. This won’t be easy, so we need to think it through before deciding. The first step though is for us to be honest about how we feel about doing something smaller or less elaborate. Are we (the adults) ok facing our friends, family, and community without embarrassment or shame? Does your spouse see things the same way? If we can own the decision as something we fully believe in and embrace it, we can make it less difficult. As far as your son, one of the most important concepts to internalize is how to think about long-term gain when facing a short-term decision. Are you sure that this affair is even something that your son wants? Some families go to Israel with their son for his bar mitzvah and invest in an experience that perhaps will have so much more meaning than one night. Or maybe a different type of trip?
Is there a potential life lesson that your son (and family) can take in about not always caving to peer pressure when we don’t agree with what others are doing?
So many of us can be thrifty in so many areas of our lives. We know what stores have the best prices for groceries, when to buy our clothing on sale, and who has the best deals on anything we might need. We can spend substantial amounts of time and energy to make sure that we are getting what we want at the best possible price. And if you do the math, is it possible that the one night will completely overshadow any effort we made to save that whole year? What if we did the opposite? What if we stopped worrying about where to get everything on sale and enjoy the freedom to shop where it is convenient in exchange for one large decision that will cost us a lot less?
One last point to think about is whether as a community our simchos have become less about the actual celebration and become more about the party. What is the focus of our celebration? Might we sometimes forget the actual reason for the party?
I think each family needs to consider a budget they can afford and do their best to work within that budget. I know it won’t be easy and can trigger a lot of feelings, but any change we want to make will always come with a price. As a supervisor of mine once said ,“Growth begins where comfort ends.” I hope you come to a decision that can work for you and your family and enables you to celebrate the simchah with as much joy as possible.