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Confessions of a Party Planner

An event extraordinaire on planning some of the most extravagant bar and bat mitzvah parties in the NYC area

If you grew up in certain enclaves of New York City or an affluent suburb, you’re probably familiar with the tradition of the bar or bat mitzvah. A religious celebration in the Jewish faith signifying the coming of age of a child, the occasion is often also marked by a huge party. In certain communities, the stakes are high for these lavish affairs: costs can easily climb toward six figures and there’s pressure to host the biggest, best and most original event your circle has ever seen.

In fact, this pressure to pull off a successful event is so great that while the milestone is meant to accompany the child’s twelfth or thirteenth birthday, many opt to throw their party during prime “mitzvah season” (which coincides with the school year) instead. In schools full of families hosting extravagant bashes weekend after weekend, throwing a party earlier in the school year helps avoid a room full of guests who are utterly mitzvah-fatigued. And rescheduling a summer birthday ensures that friends aren’t away at camp or on vacation on the day of the party. 

I found out this and more fascinating bits of information when I spoke to an event guru who has planned hundreds of bar and bat mitzvahs for families in New York City and the surrounding suburbs. She asked to remain anonymous to protect the identities of her clients, but she did agree to dish on the big bucks, extravagant extras and reality show-worthy behind-the-scenes drama that goes into creating the most memorable day of a young life.

A bat mitzvah party

A bat mitzvah party

What exactly do you do for your clients?

We can say party planner, but I do everything. When you hire me, I charge a certain fee to be your party planner, and I’ll work with you for 40 hours. If it goes above the 40 hours, I’ll charge overtime. Then if you want me to be with you at your party the day of, I’ll charge a certain fee for the day of, and we go from there. My duties are everything. As much as you want me to do in the time I’m working for you, I’ll do. Some clients say they want to be involved in planning their party, but they really don’t. Some clients say they don’t want to be involved, but they really do want to be involved. I feel it’s very important for a client to be somewhat involved. Some party planners don’t care what the client thinks. They don’t even give them the option to have two cents in their own party. I’m not like that. I feel it’s important to have something that the kid wants, too. Some of the parents let their kids be totally involved, and some parents do not let their kids be involved at all. It’s really extreme. What I’ve found is that most kids say they want to be involved, but really don’t want to be. It’s so much pressure and they have school and they have to learn the Torah and they have so much going on that when it comes down to it you just have to please them with some of the things they want. Sometimes, there’s so much drama it’s almost like you’re a counselor. It gets so bad.

What causes the most drama when planning a party?

It’s almost like you’re a marriage counselor. You get in the middle of a crisis because no one is speaking the same language. The kid wants what they want, and you just have to know how to talk to a kid to tell them you’re going to make it happen. The parents, usually the mom feels like the dad should be involved. Really, the dad doesn’t really need to be involved until the time comes where he really needs to be involved. It’s just a tactic they use to make them feel bad. It becomes explosive. A lot of times I’m the mediator in between all of this. There are just certain ways to present things to husbands and certain ways to present things to wives. There’s a lot of conversation. It’s a lot of work. I’ve found that men just want to deal with the bottom line—what is it going to cost? They don’t care so much about the itemized list. Women can be more emotional and care more about all the little details, and each of those details add up in terms of money. It’s very important that you find a way to make everybody happy and that everybody understands that that’s what you’re doing. You find a way to make everybody happy. But half the time I don’t mind at all, because I really like these people. There are some really amazing women. I get to meet all these amazing women that I normally wouldn’t meet, and I get to plan the happiest moment for their family.

How much money are we talking about?

Some people can’t afford it, but I’m talking about people that can. What’s another $200,000 in the scheme of things? For some people, it definitely makes a dent, but it’s something that they pay off. If you’re doing a party with just kids as guests, I’d say you’re looking at spending between $35,000 and $50,000. And then if you want to do it all out, with adults and kids, I would say between $100,000 and $250,000. It goes up from there. The most expensive party I have ever planned cost close to $800,000. I remember once somebody referred to it as a house. Maybe not in New York, but somewhere. Another saying is, you could drive your Mercedes off the cliff. Honestly, not being raised Jewish, I didn’t totally get the whole extravagant party until I had [my daughters’ bat mitzvahs]. When we celebrated our oldest daughter’s bat mitzvah I finally got it. I saw how happy my family was and how we would never forget that moment. I think the reason [my husband] and I are so happy doing what we do is because the end product is one of the happiest moments that you will have in your lifetime as a family. It is something that you can share with your extended family and friends. It is really priceless.

I know there are certain things that are pretty standard on the bar/bat mitzvah circuit—most people have a DJ, dancers, favors and some sort of additional entertainment like a game or a mentalist. But what takes a party to the next level?

Everybody wants to do something no one has ever done before. You research all these things that nobody’s done before and you know what, they usually end up doing something somebody has done. They’ve never done it before in this grade, or they’ve never done it before in this neighborhood. It doesn’t have to have never been done in the world.

What ideas have you heard that were just too crazy to execute?

We thought about an elephant once at a Moroccan-themed party. We tented the whole back yard and built a platform 20 feet over the pool. She entered the party being carried in like a princess in a gold hand-held carriage.

A Moroccan-themed party

A Moroccan-themed party

What are some extravagant things you have pulled off?

I had a party where we went to the kid’s camp at the end of the year and put on a full-blown fireworks show. A lot of people come in with CO2 cannons (which shoot out smoke) or they go through the walls. I just got hired by somebody that had a party planner before who told her she couldn’t have cannons shooting out t-shirts. I was like, why couldn’t you? There’s no reason why you couldn’t do that. You can do whatever you want, it’s your party. We did a hockey theme with an ice rink—that was over the top. Some parents don’t want to do anything that isn’t age-appropriate for the kids, but we did a party once that was crazy, with a rock & roll band. It was a takeoff on the 80s, and we had a cage with dancers in it. You walked in and we had stilt walkers in KISS makeup, flashing lights and a red carpet. I’ve done parties at a museum, an airport and a Black Box theater.

What are some trends or popular themes for bar/bat mitzvah parties right now?

All the kids are into sports themes or a “club” theme. They like it to just be club-themed with their name. The logo is very important because it personalizes the space for the kids. I would say just having their initials or their initials in a Jonathan Adler-esque look. It becomes a pattern. Clean and cool with specific colors. That becomes the whole vibe of the party. We like to do a slogan and a logo. They have a message which is used throughout the party, like Live Love or Extraordinary.

Lights at a party held inside a museum

Lights adorn the ceiling at a party held inside a museum

What’s the best part of your job?

I find I’ve got all these amazing friends now from being a party planner. I’m not even kidding. I have real amazing friends. I find that when their party ends, it’s like a breakup, and they feel it too. It’s not just me. All of a sudden it’s like “Oh my god, I don’t have a reason to talk to you!” It’s really amazing to meet different people and find out about them. Also, there’s a point in the party where you feel that it’s an amazing party, and until you get to that point, your job is not done. You have to make sure these kids and this family is on top of the world. That’s worth it. I get thank you notes at the end from kids, and I love that. They write, “this was the best time of my life” and they’re 13.

Main Image: Pinterest

Other Images: Ivan Piedra

This interview has been edited for clarity.