Bar mitzvahs trim down amid recession


NEW YORK (JTA) — With the weak economy forcing lifestyle changes large and small, one of the mainstays of American Jewish life — the bar-mitzvah party — is undergoing some recession-era adaptation.

While few seem to be doing away with the traditional celebration, many families are scrapping themed parties, trimming guest lists and in some cases holding joint or group bar-mitzvah parties.

“The creative aspect of bar mitzvahs has been decreased,” said caterer Jeffrey Stansfield, the chef of Advantage Jewish Catering and Event Planning in Encino, Calif.

The cost cutting at Jewish lifecycle celebrations by no means is universal. Plenty of lavish bar-mitzvah celebrations, not to mention extravagant Jewish weddings, are still being held. But the cutbacks in bar-mitzvah parties have been pronounced in some communities, according to caterers in the industry.

Stansfield said he recently catered a joint bar mitzvah for four friends whose families decided to have a combined celebration, saving on invitations, food, photography and specials such as entertainers and giveaways. Stansfield said spending on those kinds of specials have fallen about 40 percent.

One caterer in Cherry Hill, N.J., said the average spending on a bar mitzvah has dropped to $15,000 from $30,000 a few months ago, as clients cut out bells and whistles.

“The last time we did a full weekend event with kiddush meals, breakfast, luncheons and dinner buffets was a year-and-a-half ago,” said the caterer, who asked not to be identified. “Most families are looking for simplicity.”

In Dallas, Lowell Michelson of Simcha Kosher Catering said that while he has slashed prices to satisfy clients who want to produce a bar mitzvah at half the usual price, the fixed costs of his own expenses — gas, labor, food, shipping — have made his business all but unsustainable.

“We’re not able to produce profit,” Michelson told JTA. “Business has been hurting.”

Among the extras clients are eliminating are special decor, extravagant cocktail hours, food upgrades and size. They aren’t, however, doing away entirely with the party.

“We’re doing as much work as ever here; people just spend less,” said Howard Heiberger, president of Exquisite Caterers in Marlboro, N.J.

Heiberger said the Darwinistic nature of the catering business — weaker companies are felled by the recession, and stronger ones pick up clients from their failed counterparts — means that surviving companies are doing more business than ever. He said the last two years have been two of his company’s best, despite the recession.

“Caterers who went out of business were going out of business anyway,” he said. “The recession just pushed them over the top. We’re not going anywhere.”

Stansfield concurred, saying that “Even though business is off, the business that has been there has been a lot of business.”

Experts say the effects of the recession are more apparent at bar mitzvahs than weddings because the bar mitzvah is more expendable, weddings often have multiple funders — the bride and groom’s families — and weddings often represent the last of the major expenses for a child.

Bar mitzvahs, on the other hand, are usually followed after several years by college tuition bills, then perhaps a wedding.

“For a bar mitzvah, the Torah portion and synagogue service is what counts. The rest is just a child’s birthday party,” one Long Island caterer said. “A wedding is not a birthday party. It’s a pinnacle lifecycle event for adults, and their continued resistance to downsizing in the face of economic hardship proves this.”

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