The Bar Mitzvah Tisch

A father finds a creative new way to introduce his son to the larger community just before his bar mitzvah ceremony.

by Steve L. Greene
Steve L. Greene, right, invited adult friends and mentors of his son, Marcus, to speak to him before his bar mitzvah.

Steve L. Greene, right, invited adult friends and mentors of his son, Marcus, to speak to him before his bar mitzvah.

In the days before my son Marcus’ bar mitzvah last fall, I realized I also wanted to offer him a contemporary experience that he could reflect upon long after the religious service and weekend of celebration were over. Ultimately I came up with a little known ceremony called the bar mitzvah tisch. The idea originates with the groom’s tisch, an Ashkenazic tradition associated with weddings. The word tisch is Yiddish for table. It refers to the table set with snacks and drinks where the groom’s friends, teachers and relatives gather before the wedding ceremony to offer their congratulations and best wishes and to share words, stories and songs of Torah. The purpose of the tisch is to celebrate with the groom and take his mind off the upcoming ceremony and marriage. Since a 13-year-old also might be filled with anxiety and anticipation in the days prior to his bar mitzvah, I thought a bar mitzvah tisch might have the same benefit for Marcus.

I invited to the tisch a number of Jewish adult friends who had observed Marcus’ growth and maturation in school, on sports teams and in synagogue life. I included his bar mitzvah tutor, David Kintzer, a high school senior. David had not only been a role model, mentoring and instructing Marcus to lead services, read Torah and chant the haftarah, but had become a close friend and buddy on the basketball court. I also invited a college student, Martin Safer, who had known Marcus for many years, and whose family had participated with us on a group trip to Israel in 2006. A major objective of the tisch was to provide insightful discussion and reflection for Marcus. So to avoid distractions, his peers were not invited. I chose to invite men only in keeping with the tradition of an all-male groom’s tisch.

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Because I had designed the bar mitzvah tisch late in the game, Marcus first learned of it on the Monday before the Thursday of the tisch, with his bar mitzvah on that Shabbat. He was not exactly thrilled: “I didn’t want to be with a bunch of adults and no kids. I didn’t understand the whole point since I had never heard about a bar mizvah tisch before.”

For the tisch, I rented the gymnasium and party room of a nearby community center. As an icebreaker, for the first hour everyone played basketball and/or volleyball. It was especially symbolic for me to play on Marcus’ team to show him the way into the adult aspects of our Jewish community through active play and teamwork.

During the second hour, light refreshments were served around a large table (the “tisch”). I welcomed everyone and invited them as elders in Marcus’ community to share insights with him as he approached his bar mitzvah.

While there is much emphasis on encouraging our sons to grow up quickly, Oscar Kipersztok advised Marcus, “as you grow up, remember to keep some of your child spirit in you.”

Jim Levy, the father of one of Marcus’ soccer teammates, talked about the importance of taking risks and being willing to make mistakes. He recounted a recent soccer tournament game in which Marcus’ team lost 2-0. Following the game, one of the mothers of the winning team reported that her son’s coach had added ineligible players to his roster to fortify his squad. A major statute of the rules of competition had been broken: a coach cannot play someone who is not registered properly. The coach admitted his mistake and his team had to withdraw from the tournament. Ultimately, Marcus’ team was awarded the tournament title, and a priceless lesson was learned about the mitzvah of reporting injustice.

I was gratified when Sam Perlin told my son that we, his parents, were role models of tikkun olam (repairing the world) in the Jewish community and in the larger community.

Preparations for the bar mitzvah can be a two-way street between tutor and student. David Kintzer said that he “learns so much from his students during the process of teaching them.” David also remarked that he, too, has much to learn about life and a whole host of important subjects as he travels on his own educational journey.

Mitch Klein told Marcus that wherever he goes in life he would always have his Jewish community, his friends, family, Jewish traditions, and institutions to depend on during times of need.

I have discovered that celebrations find their truest meaning when shared with one’s community. The bar mitzvah tisch was an opportunity to blend the importance of belonging to a brotherhood and community with the recognition that personal spiritual awakening takes place through stories and life lessons conveyed by mentors and role models.

I think Phil Levin summed up the value of the experience best. “The bar mitzvah tisch transcends even the importance of a men’s club whose mission is brotherhood and service programs, since it is a time for a young Jewish man to bond with men and mentors from his community.”

When I asked Marcus afterward how he felt about his bar mitzvah tisch, he said that he was really glad we had done it. “It was a lot of fun playing with the adults. After the discussion part, I felt more relaxed about my bar mitzvah. It made me feel like I was joining the adult part of the Jewish community. And the food was delicious.”

Suggestions for Making a Bar Mitzvah Tisch – My Top Ten List

  1. Be creative in planning the event and be sure to take photos and/or videos.
  2. Consider for discussion themes such as: joining the larger Jewish community, tikkun olam, community building, life lessons, humor, funny stories.
  3. Blend in hobbies or special interests of the bar mitzvah into the program.
  4. Use the Bar Mitzvah Tisch as a chance to emphasize or bridge the boy’s bar mitzvah service project with the upcoming Shabbat ceremony.
  5. Invite a special guest to add some special symbolic words of wisdom and encouragement. This could be a sports figure or another community leader with a link to the bar mitzvah boy’s bar mitzvah service project.
  6. Play some kind of sports such as basketball, volleyball or baseball as an ice breaker to let people get acquainted while breaking a sweat and having some fun before sitting together to focus on the potentials of the young guest of honor.
  7. After the ice breaker serve light refreshments while everyone meets around a big table to share thoughts and guidance to the bar mitzvah boy.
  8. Have the guests build something together such as a play structure for a school, participate in building or repairing a house with Habitat for Humanity.
  9. Consider not inviting the peers of the bar mitzvah so that he is not distracted by his friends, especially during the discussion time. This allows him to consider the deeper meaning of the program.
  10. Weave together examples of virtuous character traits through stories about selfdiscipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty and faith, which likens the program to a hero’s journey adding appeal and linkage to joining the Jewish community in a more mature status.

Steve L. Greene, MD, is medical director of the Advanced Dermatology and Laser Institute of Seattle. He attended Camp Ramah in the Berkshires as a camper and a counselor.