Party Hardy

Heidi Hiller (right), owner of Innovative Party Planning in Owings Mills, and her event planner, Tally Johnstone, show off an assortment of custom decorations.
(David Stuck)

When it was time for his bar mitzvah, Zachary Stein, son of a successful Hollywood talent agent, was given a “Titanic”-themed bar mitzvah party. The affair, which cost a half-million dollars, featured a model of the Titanic with the words, “Mazel tov, Zachary” scrawled on the front of the ship. Among other wacky gimmicks, the party featured a wet T-shirt contest and a rap-version of “Hava Nagila” performed by a famous hip-hop artist. Zachary entered the party announcing, “I’m king of the Torah!” But relax. It’s only a movie. Still, “Keeping up with the Steins,” a 2006 comedy that pokes fun at the over-the-top b’nai mitzvah celebrations that have become commonplace in the past several decades, is not all that far from the truth in some affluent Jewish communities. For the rest of us, however, money (and taste) tend to be important considerations. An array of Baltimore event professionals have some advice on keeping costs down while still having an event that reflects the personality of the b’nai mitzvah child.

“Find out what events actually cost,” says Heidi Hiller of Innovative Party Planning in Owings Mills. “Before you enter into a contract, make sure you read it and understand what isn’t covered. So many go into contracts thinking only about the rental of the place, the food, and the alcohol. That’s only half the cost of an event. The other half quickly adds up. Depending upon the kind of entertainment, dècor, photographs … sometimes those things cost more than 50 percent. Break it all down and then prioritize.”

Caterer Charles Levine, who owns Charles Levine Caterers and Glorious Kosher, agrees. “It’s all about priorities,” he says. “When someone calls us, we talk philosophy. We need to know, ‘What’s your vision? What is the most important element to you? Where do you want to put your money?’”

Once priorities are set, Levine says that going with a full-service caterer will ensure high-quality food and excellent service. Because he is familiar with local venues and experienced with so many different types of events, Levine says his staff can “lead the party,” sometimes making a party planner unnecessary. And since he has strong relationships with other vendors, he may be able to advise families on where to get the best prices on items such as party favors.

“Staff is not negotiable,” says Levine. “Staff makes the party.”

Levine also notes that clients may save money by holding a party in the time between meals. “We can do a great dessert and cocktail party, or late night hors d’oeuvres,” he says. “Maybe they don’t need to rent an expensive space, or maybe they can limit the number of people they invite,” he adds.

Among the b’nai mitzvah-related costs that clients often forget to take into consideration, says Hiller, are synagogue and party attire for the bar or bat mitzvah and other members of the immediate family. At Jan’s Boutique, in Cherry Hill, N.J., owner Paul Virilli’s staff always begins customers’ searches for the perfect bat mitzvah dress by asking them if they are on a budget. “We don’t assume that everyone wants to spend $5,000 on a dress,” says Virilli, who notes that his store carries dresses at price points from $99 to $4,000. “No matter where you shop, let them know your budget. An intelligent sales staff will keep you within your budget.” Virilli also encourages shoppers to go to stores that offer many options and to take their time. “Don’t rush the decision. We are the biggest store in the region, and we love it when customers look around.”

Hiller also urges clients to comparison shop. “Some venues include more than others. Do your homework!” If families are looking for ways to decrease costs, she suggests omitting party favors. “Maybe they don’t need that. You can use the D.J. giveaways instead. Be creative. If you or someone in your family has some special talent, maybe you can do some of the dècor by yourselves. “Remember, when it comes to dècor, you pay for labor, materials and creativity. Do whatever you can do ahead of time. Otherwise, you’ll be forced to pay for things you might have been able to do yourself.”

Bat Mitzvah girl one day, bar or bat mitzvah guest another … and another … and another…
Once Jewish children reach the age of 12 or 13, in addition to their own bar or bat mitzvah, chances are they will be attending many of their friends’ b’nai mitzvah celebrations as well. Being fashionably dressed for all those parties can cost a small fortune. Thankfully, help is on the way.

On Sunday, Dec. 7, from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Join for Teens, in collaboration with CHANA, will sponsor a “Priceless” dress event at the Mitchell David Teen Center in Owings Mills. The event will offer brand new special-occasion dresses for girls at no charge. For additional information, visit

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