Make a service program

Tackling bar mitzvah programs

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Have you been encouraged — or even required — by your synagogue to prepare a handout of some kind for your kid’s bar or bat mitzvah service? A little confused as to what to include? Do you simply sum up the bat mitzvah ceremony? Or do you create a program that lists all the names of every member of your family dating back to Ellis Island? Should the program’s contents be limited to a single piece of folded paper? Or should you create a booklet so dense with your kid’s accomplishments and Jewish pride that when the service is over, all your guests will feel compelled to wait outside the temple side entrance and have your daughter sign their program?

If handing out some kind of program at the service is left up to your own devices, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Keep it simple

Of course you want every person who attends your daughter’s bat mitzvah to be comfortable and knowledgeable about what’s going on. Since your guests will probably run the gamut from active temple member to friendly neighbor who has never set foot in a synagogue before, it can be a tough task to include the right information in the best way.

Instead of trying to provide the entire history of the Jewish people and the meaning of every ritual item that exists, you’re better off painting in broad strokes. Include a couple sentences on the significance of a young Jewish person turning 13 years old. Perhaps explain why the Torah is so important, and how your daughter has spent a lot of time learning how to chant from it. If she will be wearing a special tallit or item of particular sentimental value, it’s certainly appropriate to let people know about that.

Another benefit to having a program is that it allows you to provide any important information to your guests in an efficient way without disturbing the flow of the service. For instance, if it’s the custom in your temple to form a receiving line at the conclusion of services, you might want to put that in, so everyone knows that they should make their way over to shake hands and say “mazel tov” before leaving the building or going right on to the reception.

Name names

Probably the biggest reason why families prepare handouts is to identify those family and friends who will be receiving honors. Guests love to look up to the bimah and see that Uncle Herb and Aunt Selma are receiving an aliyah to the Torah, or how much of a resemblance there is among all the relatives.

Consider not making a program at all

If you have the choice, it’s perfectly OK if you don’t want to bother preparing any sort of handout for your guests at all. Your temple likely has services every week, and they go on just fine without a program. I’m sure your rabbi or cantor announces pages, tells the congregation when to stand and sit, and when different parts of the service are taking place. While b’nei mitzvah programs do have a bunch of advantages, I’ve always thought they run the risk of making the service seem more like a spectator event — “Now taking the bimah is Number 18, Morty Goldenblatt!”

I think that even people who are completely unfamiliar with a Jewish worship service can glean a lot of information by simply watching and listening.

And what could be the most vital piece of advice …

If you decide to use someone else’s program as a template for your own, make sure to change the bar mitzvah kid’s name.

And yes, that has happened — can you say “awkward.”

Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at

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