Friday, April 09, 2010

"Keeping The Faith" - When Shooting A Bar Mitzvah

Good Morning Everybody,

We had a great shoot yesterday at Isaac M. Wise Temple.  I've mentioned that I have really been looking forward to this event.  I have been photographing the family and a lot of their friends for many  years. It will be nice to see everyone over the weekend.

bie2524I mentioned to Damien, my assistant yesterday, that I had known Will, our handsome young Bar Mitzvah, boy since he was just a toddler.  He is the youngest of four siblings and has just blossomed into a handsome young man.  It was a pleasure to work with him yesterday, and I captured some exciting images as evidenced by the "Image Of The Day" above.

We head out again this evening to photograph the gathering of all the close family, friends and guests from out-of-town.  It's an important part of the weekend's activities.  It's always fun to see all the aunts, uncles, and cousins come together to celebrate this life cycle event with the family.

Then it's early wake up call tomorrow morning for the morning service.  My team and I are meeting at my studio at 8:30 a.m. We have to be on site by 9:30 a.m. for more pre-ceremony photographs before the 11:15 service.

We have about a two hour break in the afternoon then it's back to the big party in the evening.  That will wrap by about midnight.  After that, we get to call it a day. Whew!

So on that note, let stay on the main topic and let me tell you how to keep the faith at a Bar Mitzvah

"Keeping The Faith" - When Shooting A Bar Mitzvah In A Reform Temple

I was going to speak on the topic of keeping the faith at a Jewish wedding today, but with my Bar Mitzvah this weekend, I thought today's topic was more apropos.  I’ll cover Jewish wedding ceremonies next week.

There are a lot less photographers shooting Bar/Bat Mitzvahs than weddings, that's for sure.  But, you know what - even if you've never shot a Bar/Bat Mitzvah in your life, this will still provide a nice peek at a different life cycle event.  I hope you enjoy it.  Here we go.

Plum Street I've mentioned that I begin all my Bar Mitzvah coverages at the temple on the afternoon of the Bar Mitzvah's last rehearsal.  There are a lot of family shots to take, and I discovered years ago that by splitting the shooting between two days, I was able to capture a great set of images. 

On the day of the service, things can get get moving quite quickly. So quickly, in fact, that by trying to get all the images on that one Saturday morning would simply result in our running out of time. Its just the fact that there are so many families and family members to photograph.  That’s why I like to get my “head start” on the photographs on Thursday or Friday’s rehearsal.

Anyway, let me give you the quick shortened version on how a Bar/Bat Mitzvah proceeds.  They are very cool to photograph and I really enjoy watching these young 13 year olds make their "rite of passage" into Jewish adulthood by literally being "Rabbi for the day" as they conduct nearly the entire Saturday service for the entire congregation.  What were you doing when you were 13 years old? ;~)

Hit The “Read More…” link below for lots more images and the rest of the story.

For Isaac M. Wise Temple, known around the greater Cincinnati, Ohio area as Plum Street Temple, because of the street it resides in the city, services usually begin at 9:45 a.m. We are on site by 7:30 - 8:00 a.m.  Before the service begins, I need to get photographs of our young Bar Mitzvah and his immediate family. 

Next we need to get images with the grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins.  Sometimes a few of the relatives may run a little late complicating the schedule a bit.  You still have to work through it and get the shots.

aon1434 Rabbi arrives about 9:00 a.m. for the final run through.  I've GOT TO BE FINISHED with all my photographs by the time he arrives - no exceptions!  The walk thorough with Rabbi is my opportunity to get those images with I will intertwine in with the actual coverage of the day. 

app1494Since Rabbi is conducting the walk through, all is quite relaxed.  I just need to get my shots quickly and efficiently without holding him up in any way. By 9:35 a.m. the run through is complete and Rabbi and our Bar/Bat Mitzvah retire to the Rabbi's study to relax for a few minutes before the service begins.  The rest of the family take their seats up front.

arb1577 I finish up with several scene setters of the Torah, flowers, program, guests arriving, and what ever looks promising and interesting for the coverage.  I've got to be finished, out of the sanctuary, and up in the balcony by 9:40 a.m. - no dallying at all!

Once in the balcony, my assistants lay out all the lenses I'll use for the ceremony shoot.  That includes all optics from my 8mm fisheye all the way up to my 70-300 IS lens.  I and my assistants are the only attendees permitted in the balcony. 

Why? Let me tell you what happened about 24 years ago when I was doing one of my first Bar Mitzvahs at Plum Street Temple.  I heard that there were no photographs allowed during the service.  I knew I had to get the shots.  What did I do??!! You guessed it if you read yesterday's post [link].

After personally meeting with the Rabbi and some discussion, it was resolved that I would be on a trial basis for shooting from the balcony.  If the Rabbi noticed ANY distractions coming from the balcony, he told me he would STOP the service, and have me leave the balcony immediately.  Thankfully, 24 years later, I’m still shooting from the balcony and that Rabbi has long since retired.

arq1673 Anyway, the service starts simply enough with Rabbi's opening welcome remarks to the congregation and the Bar/Bat Mitzvah.  Now we are underway and our young Bar Mitzvah steps up to the bemah to conduct the service.

I usually get a few shots, telephoto of course, of both Rabbi and our Bar Mitzvah interacting with each other at this time.  There will be a few instances of both singing and prayer and I simply follow the action.

The next BIG thing to happen in the service is bringing the Torah to the bemah for the Torah reading.

ath1817 Next all parents and grandparents join Rabbi and our Bar Mitzvah on the bemah.  Rabbi then passes the Torah from person to person - symbolically, if from generation to generation.

The Torah ends up in the arms of our young Bar Mitzvah.  At the Rabbi's signal, everyone on the bemah follows Rabbi and our Bar/Bat Mitzvah off the bemah as they process the Torah through the temple.  atr1850 It always makes a great shot as the guests reach out and touch their prayer books to the torah to show their reverence and respect.

Once the Rabbi and our Bar/Bat Mitzvah are back on the bemah, I get all the action of the Torah being undressed - that means removing the protective decorative torah covers.

The service continues with the not to be missed Torah readings and aliyahs from special family members asked to join Rabbi on the bemah.  I am running the "focal lengths" like crazy at this point in the service to get the great close up and overall images of this very important part of the service.

I don't want to go through every little detail about what goes on during the entire ceremony.  You can find plenty info online - here is a quick link for reference [link1] & [link2] & [link3].

axl2120 The point I do want to make is this. Be sure none of the bemah activities are missed.  After the Aliyas and Haftorah readings the Rabbi will share a few words with our Bar Mitzvah.  Then they both make the trip to the holy Ark for his blessing.

Afterwards the parents will come up to make their speeches to their son or daughter.  This is a perfect opportunity to capture some great shots – giggles, tears, hugs, and all.  This is usually followed by the grandparent’s prayer whom will be invited back to the bemah for the honors.

ayf2161 Shortly afterwards, the Torah will be returned to the holy Ark and final prayers will be said. 

There are a few presentations of gifts from the temple dignitaries and a few more short speeches.  The service wraps up with the Kiddush and motzi - breaking the bread and drinking the wine.  This is usually conducted to one side of the bemah by brothers, sisters, and cousins.

bac2285 We need to shoot this quickly as all the guests are starting to leave and heading for the luncheon in the undercroft of the temple.  We make the dash from the balcony to the undercroft – three flights below - and shoot the beautiful room setting just seconds before all the congregants and guests start filing in.  It's pretty close timing but we always pull it off.

That's pretty much the sequence of things on that special morning.  The key thing is to say alert to everything going on and NOT MISS a thing.  By the way, this posts illustrates the policies and procedures for Isaac M. Wise Temple , a Reform temple in Cincinnati.  For conservative and Orthodox services, all photography on the day of the special event is TOTALLY off limits – NO PHOTOGRAPHS ON THE SABBATH – NO EXCEPTIONS!!!  Needless to say, we go to Plan B for those coverages – more later on those services.

I truly enjoy hearing these young adolescents conducting the service and sharing what they've learned from their Torah portion and what they learned from the entire experience. Like I said earlier, what were you doing when you were 13 years old? What an exciting and educational experience, but even more what a preparation for life's successes for these young 13 year olds!

Mazol tov everybody!  See ya' Monday,  -David

200px-Isaac_Mayer_Wise Footnote: The history of the Jews in Cincinnati and Plum Street Temple named for Isaac Meyer Wise occupies a prominent place in the development of Jewish secular and religious life in the United States. Cincinnati is not only the oldest Jewish community west of the Allegheny Mountains but has also been an institutional center of American Reform Judaism for more than a century.


  1. Was waiting for this one. Next month we'll be doing our first Bat Mitzvah in Kansas City, KS. So, it couldn't more helpful than this.


  2. This is very helpful. I'm a videographer who will be shooting my first orthodox Jewish bar-mitzvah this week. The ceremony is on a Thursday, so I am hoping to be allowed to shoot from the floor and not the balcony. After reading this I will definitely contact the Rabbi ahead of time and make sure I follow protocol.

  3. This is super helpful! I'm shooting my first bar mitzvah tomorrow. My husband converted a year ago and I'm not Jewish. Thanks for the run down!

  4. I have shot several bat mitzvahs. For all the ones that I have done the photographer is not allowed in the temple for the actual ceremony (which is typical)...

  5. Thank you, I am meeting with a client for a consultation on shooting her son's bar mitzvah in December. This information was great!