coming of age
Planning a vision-driven bar mitzvah
A story of a special bar mitzvah, informed by two decades of work in the non-profit sector, that resulted in a whole lot of naches.
My son Ethan is an optimistic, fun-loving, deeply caring person. He is also autistic. He is my youngest child, and as a Jewish mother of three boys, I’ve had the privilege of planning two prior bar mitzvahs. While the planning for each child followed a similar pattern, each child is unique so each planning process is unique. This was all the truer for Ethan’s bar mitzvah.
As a professional in the non-profit sector for over two decades, I approached Ethan’s bar mitzvah as I do in my work with clients — by asking questions. Questions like: What is our vision? What is our mission? What outcomes are we hoping to achieve? And, what is our strategy to achieve our vision, mission, and outcomes?
Really? Well, maybe not formulated precisely in that way, but when I reflect back on the planning, that is exactly what my husband and I did (I’m being generous, really me with occasional input from my husband).
Keeping the Vision Front and Center
Our vision for Ethan’s bar mitzvah was informed by our family’s deep commitment to the Jewish community. We developed a picture of how having a bar mitzvah would enable Ethan to engage in the Jewish community five, 10, 20 years from now. Knowing certain prayers and being able to be called to the Torah for an Aliyah (a special blessing before and after the Torah reading), would equip Ethan with knowledge and skills to be included in the Jewish community as an adult.
Your Mission – If You Choose to Accept It (We did)
Traditionally, a mission statement outlines an organization’s plan to realize their vision. A good mission statement is clarifying, shapes culture and provides a framework for decision making. Did we develop a mission statement for Ethan’s bar mitzvah? Not really, but in the almost three years of planning (including a postponement due to the pandemic), we had a multitude of decision points where we intuitively created a mission statement to achieve our vision for Ethan.
Given Ethan’s needs we used our “mission statement” to determine who we would invite to the bar mitzvah: our closest friends and family who completely understand Ethan, and teachers and therapists who love Ethan as much as we do and are equally invested in his success. We considered other questions. What would his invitation look like? How do we reflect Ethan’s contagious love of life and celebrations? What setting, location and timing would allow Ethan to maximize his potential for success? How do we craft a party that would be celebratory and enjoyable for Ethan?
Achieving Our Desired Outcomes
“Meeting the client where they are at”
I’m a social worker by training. This phrase is prevalent in our education and has guided me in my work with numerous organizations. But how did it apply to planning my son’s bar mitzvah? My husband and I had to set aside conventional expectations for a “traditional” bar mitzvah. We had to discipline ourselves to put our own agendas and anxieties aside and think about the service, kiddush luncheon after the service and evening party with a focus on what would work for Ethan.
For example, we knew from previous parties that Ethan would last about two and a half hours and that he enjoys an earlier bed time than most. Ethan’s bar mitzvah party started at 5:30 p.m. and ended at 8:00 p.m. Like clockwork, at 7:45 Ethan said to us, “I’m ready to go home now.” He’d eaten his favorite foods, enjoyed his friends, won some prizes, and it was time for bed.
Having the right people on your team
This was an easy one! Having clarity of vision and mission allowed us to assemble the bar mitzvah “dream team.” Ethan was already enrolled in Gateways: Access to Jewish Education religious school and LOVED it! Thankfully, the B’nai Mitzvah Program developed and run by Gateways is spectacular. He had amazing, talented and compassionate teachers. Our congregational rabbi got to know Ethan, and was deeply invested in our goals for Ethan’s bar mitzvah.
Additional members of our team included the synagogue administration, event planners, caterer, DJ, photographer, photobooth and claw machine operators. These team members needed to understand our vision and mission and appreciate our “stakeholders” who would be a part of this event: Ethan and his peers. It was my job to clearly articulate the vision along with particular needs of the group (i.e., easy to follow instructions, quiet music for the party, games with minimal instructions, speedy food delivery, no special lighting). With clear and frequent communication, every team member executed their job to perfection.
Oh my! Ethan was extraordinary. He sang opening prayers, led a large portion of the Torah service, read Torah and delivered a D’var Torah. My husband and I were proud, elated, amazed and relieved. Everyone in the room: family, dear friends, Ethan’s friends, teachers and therapists exuded love for Ethan and felt joy in his amazing accomplishment.
As for our vision for Ethan, he has already been included in our synagogue’s regular Sabbat morning service by having an Aliyah, a skill he learned in preparing for his bar mitzvah.
Like any parents, we don’t know what the future will hold for our son. But we are deeply grateful that Ethan’s bar mitzvah gave us the motivation to pause, consider our vision and hopes for his future Jewish life, and take a few meaningful steps toward helping him realize that future.
Linda Mann Simansky is a nonprofit consultant who specializes in organizational needs assessments, strategic visioning, leading focus groups for organizations and their constituents, and program evaluations.