The Rise Of The Independent B'nai Mitzvah
By Jane Ulman, Contributing Editor (excerpted)  

Gabriel Shacket stood on the bimah, before the Holy Ark, and led the morning service for a group of 75 family members and friends. He recited the prayers and blessings, chanted from the Torah and delivered a speech. In short, the 13-year-old became a bar mitzvah.

 "It was a beautiful ceremony," said his father, Harvey. "People said it was the most spiritual bar mitzvah they had ever been to."

 Gabriel's bar mitzvah did not take place in a synagogue but rather at the Odyssey Restaurant in Northridge. And the bimah, complete with a reading table, cantor's lectern, Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark) containing a handwritten Torah, and sound system. So was the cantorial soloist. 

 The Shacket family's decision to do Gabriel's bar mitzvah independently is part of a growing trend, holding them in hotels, restaurants and homes.

 Families selecting this option -- most of them unaffiliated and many interfaith -- view it as a positive way of connecting their children to their Jewish heritage and an excellent alternative to synagogues, they see as unaffordable or unresponsive to their family's needs.

The Shackets had a bar mitzvah for their son and believe the experience brought Gabriel closer to Judaism.

Jewish Educator, Owen Meldy, founder of the Jewish Bar and Bat Mitzvah Service, has been providing independent b'nai mitzvah to families such as the Shackets for the past 20 years, averaging 50 b'nai mitzvah a year for families from San Francisco to San Diego.

He employs seven tutors and owns five Torah scrolls as well as four complete bimah settings, each with a complete sound system and liturgical music specially arranged for a 90-minute service.

Meldy, previously ran the bar and bat mitzvah training program at Stephen S. Wise Temple, believes he is providing a much-needed service to the more than 80 percent of Jews who are not affiliated with a temple.

"I have a sense of mission... for every Jew to exercise their birthright for a bar mitzvah," Meldy said.

Harvey Shacket, whose second son, Jeremy, is currently studying for his bar mitzvah with Owen Meldy, believes Meldy is doing a tremendous job of keeping people in the flock.

"He's taught my kids to be Jewish," he said.   "It's the best thing we ever did.