Author Topic: I need your help with an unusual but tricky etiquette problem (long, sorry)  (Read 4334 times)

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gellchom

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I know that this won't be something that applies to many people, but it's a situation we face frequently, and I just can't figure out the polite thing to do.  I know that if anyone can help me, it's YOU.

Okay, background (bear with me): My husband is a clergyman at a synagogue with a large congregation.  The convention is to invite us to all weddings he performs and to all bar/bat mitzvah (plural: b'nei mitzvah) parties.  We don't attend them all -- we'd never get to do anything else -- just the ones of the families that we are close enough with that we think they'd invite us even if they didn't have to as a courtesy.  (My question isn't about gifts, but in case you're curious, we have a similar policy for gifts: only for the ones we attend, or would attend if we were able -- otherwise, our gift budget would be through the roof.) 

My question is about responding to the invitations for the b'nei mitzvah.  The invitation is to the Shabbat service Saturday morning and Kiddush lunch afterward and often also to a party in the evening.  (It's very bad form not to invite us, as my husband has trained these kidz, to the evening party if they have one, but they don't always have one, or sometimes just for kidz.)  Note that a bar/bat mitzvah service is NOT a private event for the family and their guests; it's the regular Saturday morning services that are held every week for the congregation, open to the public, and the child participates.

I need to explain about the Kiddush lunch.  There is always something, whether or not there is a bar/bat mitzvah or other occasion for which someone is generously hosting.  If not, the synagogue pays (and it's usually much simpler, but enough for lunch).  The important point that it is always there, and it's for everyone who attends services -- NOT just for the invited guests of the hosts.  In fact, they are required to provide for their invited guests plus 250 or something like that.  They don't have to host a kiddush at all if they don't want to, but if they do, it's for the whole congregation.  I hope that's clear.

[Sorry for all the detail, but it's necessary to understand the problem!]

The response card will often have a line for the Saturday morning service and kiddush luncheon and another line for the evening party.  If I'm going to attend an evening party, I wouldn't dream of skipping the service, so those b'nei mitzvah aren't at issue: I respond that we are attending both.

Finally, the question: But what about where there is no invitation to an evening party (or there is but we are declining because we don't know them well)?  What do I do then about the kiddush line?

See, I don't attend services every single Saturday morning, more like 3/4 of the time.  I don't know 6 weeks in advance if I'm going to feel like coming to services that particular Saturday. 

For those b'nei mitzvah, I honestly feel like I (and my husband) are just part of the estimated 250 regular congregants that the hosts are providing for.  So I don't feel like it messes up their count if we're not in it as part of their number of additional guests.  But there's still that card staring at me ....

So what do I do?  I am not comfortable with any of the choices that I can see:

1) Make up my mind in advance.  But I do not feel that it is fair that I (obviously my husband will be there) should have to decide that far in advance whether or not I will be there that day.  (Remember I am only talking about the ones where we have no personal connection and are absolutely only invited as a courtesy.)

2) Decline.  But not only does this throw of their count if I do come (an insubstantial amount, though; it's an informal buffet, not a plated or seated meal), it seems kind of like a slap: "I already know I won't want to come that day since it's only YOUR bar/bat mitzvah."

3) Accept.  But then, see (1).  Also, then I kind of feel then that we are a little more obliged to send at least a small gift.

4) Just don't send back the card.  Even though I am not really messing them up (as I said, we're part of the congregational base they're paying for anyway), it still feels rude.  (But I feel less guilty about it if, as occasionally happens, they are having an evening party but didn't invite us to it!)

If we're also invited to the evening party, I have fudged this by just not filling in any blanks and instead writing a note saying that the party sounds like fun and we're disappointed that we will be unable to celebrate with them.  Can't do that when the only thing we're invited to is the morning service, though.

I recognize that this is a very unusual and specific problem!  So there's no etiquette authority to consult for some rule.  I'm not so much looking for some rule to apply as guidance on how to handle this in a mannerly way.  I'm stuck.

Which is why I turn to you all for advice.  You always have good suggestions!  Thanks in advance.

camlan

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Question: If you attend the Saturday morning service, with or without a b'nei mitzvah, do you usually attend the kiddush luncheon?

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VorFemme

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Put down that you will be there for the lunch, but have other plans for the evening (especially if it is after sunset and "the next day" according to the sunset to sunset day that I understand is most often used). 

Dad was a preacher (not a rabbi or priest) but some of the same "rules of etiquette" apply - you have to pick a few events to go to and a few to skip or there would never be any "family time" or time to study, because there is always something going on in a large congregation. 
Let sleeping dragons be.......morning breath......need I say more?

artk2002

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Interesting. My experience is somewhat limited (I think I've attended about 10 b'nei mitzvah), but I don't recall seeing a separate RSVP line for the kiddush luncheon. Only something for the evening party.

For a lot of reasons, the luncheon has to be flexible about the number of people attending. Unless the send invitations to the entire congregation, there's no way to know who will be there on a given Saturday, making the luncheon line on the RSVP pretty useless for anything but the most general planning. I doubt very much that anyone can plan a luncheon so that an extra leftover bagel, some lox and a few crudites would present a financial loss. If this were a full-on meal buffet, I might be more concerned.

A long-winded way of saying that you should reply 'yes' unless you're absolutely sure you won't be there and not worry if you can't make it on the day of.

Of course, there's no problem with saying yes to the kiddush, but no to the evening event. They're two separate things, otherwise they wouldn't have two separate RSVP lines.

Question: If you attend the Saturday morning service, with or without a b'nei mitzvah, do you usually attend the kiddush luncheon?

If there is no b'nei mitzvah, there is no kiddush. The kiddush isn't a regular part of the day, only when it's a celebration.
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bow lines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. -Mark Twain

gellchom

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Actually, at our synagogue, there IS always a Kiddush lunch, whether or not there is a celebration.  The synagogue pays for it.  It is usually less elaborate, but it's always there. 

Whether or not I eat lunch there after services depends, I must admit, on whether there are yummy leftovers at home that I'd rather have!  That is certainly something I don't know weeks ahead.

Artk, the whole problem would be solved if people just didn't put a line for the Kiddush!  And you're right, it's not even necessary -- the number you give the caterer is simply the number of your invited guests for the whole shebang who have replied yes plus the 250 congregational base.  Not everyone does (we didn't).

Do you really think it's better to reply yes and then not come than simply not to respond?  I mean just for the Kiddush; I always give a yes or no for an evening party.  They do need to know that, and it's not unreasonable for us to have to decide that several weeks ahead.

Thanks for helping me figure this out.

jmarvellous

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I would reply "yes" for kiddush only in nearly all circumstances (unless, say, you'll be out of town for the weekend and you already know).

If you don't make it, ask your husband to send your apologies when he greets the family. They will understand (or if they don't, surely they have lots more to think about on the special day).

If you begin to attend synagogue less frequently for any reason or if your congregation shrinks a lot, I'd reconsider, but for now, attending 75% of the time and a 250+ person buffer, I think this is the best route. In my experience, there are likely to be leftovers even if everyone shows up.

cicero

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Interesting. My experience is somewhat limited (I think I've attended about 10 b'nei mitzvah), but I don't recall seeing a separate RSVP line for the kiddush luncheon. Only something for the evening party.

For a lot of reasons, the luncheon has to be flexible about the number of people attending. Unless the send invitations to the entire congregation, there's no way to know who will be there on a given Saturday, making the luncheon line on the RSVP pretty useless for anything but the most general planning. I doubt very much that anyone can plan a luncheon so that an extra leftover bagel, some lox and a few crudites would present a financial loss. If this were a full-on meal buffet, I might be more concerned.

A long-winded way of saying that you should reply 'yes' unless you're absolutely sure you won't be there and not worry if you can't make it on the day of.

Of course, there's no problem with saying yes to the kiddush, but no to the evening event. They're two separate things, otherwise they wouldn't have two separate RSVP lines.
I've also never seen the separate line for kiddish, i always thought it was a given that there will be an unknown number of guests - even "regular" synagogue attendees don't always know in advance if they will be there that week, and sometimes people have guests who are invited to join etc.

i would think that you are in the clear if you reply that you will come and then you end up not going. of course, for an evening event you would want to be more precise.

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WillyNilly

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Ultimately, I don't think one more "yes" or "no" is going to make a big difference.  But of course you know that, but still want a polite way to answer.  So here's what I think you should do regarding a kiddush weeks in advance, from a non-friend: respond "no" and make a small notation on your calendar of the date.  Then if you decide to go that Saturday, you quickly check your calendar.  If you see you RSVP'ed "no" you still go, but you make it a personal point to not partake in the kiddush luncheon that day, and simply have other meal plans. Sure having a bit of food probably won't make a difference, but its more the point - the point of the RSVP is for the food numbers, so basically just opt out of the part since you previous said you were opting out; your physical presence at services or in the room with the luncheon is irrelevant as far as the RSVP is concerned.

DavidH

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I know exactly the situation you mean and I'm surprised they have a separate line, but that is for another post.

For your issue, I like the idea of checking yes unless you are certain you won't attend since your husband will definitely be there.  You could also write, "Rabbi Gellcom is looking forward to the kiddish, but regrets that we will not be able to attend the dinner."  That allows you to avoid the question of your attendance at the kiddish entirely and since the count allows 250 extra, you can just be part of the 250 if you decide to attend.

For the gift, I would suggest a nice card or something of that nature, but nothing more unless it is someone you know very well.  I think most families will understand that purchasing a gift for each occasion is likely not feasible.  If you wanted to get a gift for those occasions where you just attend the kiddish, one option would be a small gift that you give a variant of to everyone.  I'm thinking along the lines of a yarmulke for men and something Sabbath related for women.

TootsNYC

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I would say reply "yes" to the kiddush unless you *know* you won't be there.

What is the likelihood, in percentages, that you'll attend services? 70% of the time you attend? 90%? For me, the only times I miss worship services are if I'm sick or out of town. So I'd always say "yes," and then not worry about it if it turns out that I'm sick or suddenly have an opportunity to go out of town (I wouldn't consider this a "previous commitment" the way I would if I were going to the evening event).

If your likehood of attending is less than 66%, I'd say you could put "no," and then maybe not stay for the meal if it looked like there were going to be a problem.

Aeris

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I think TootsNYC's thought about your general likelihood of attending services any given Saturday is useful (and since you say it's 75% or so, that weighs heavily in favor of RSVPing 'yes'), but I'd also think through the ramifications of each scenario.

To me, RSVPing no then being there might strike the hosts as a bit odd. It's not that it's terrible, or that it makes *any* practical difference, but seeing you there could trigger a thought of 'wait, I thought she RSVPed no...'. On the other hand, if you RSVP 'yes' and then don't show up, I honestly doubt anyone would be looking for you consciously enough to notice your absence. First they'd have to consciously think about your attendance, triggered by likely nothing; then, they'd have to look around through the whole kiddush luncheon to see if you were there, and finally after exhausting the room conclude that you were not. Seems fairly unlikely. I suppose they could ask your husband directly if you were around, but again, they'd have to think of it first. 

So, I don't think either one makes a mote of practical difference. And while I think the social difference between the two is absolutely miniscule, I would opt for RSVPing yes then possibly no-showing, as I think people are even less likely to notice or even think about that than the reverse.

lowspark

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I'm going to reply from the point of view of a congregant who had two sons who had Bar Mitzvahs in a synagogue identical to what you are describing. There's always a lunch; the host family pays for their guest plus a specific number of congregants who will be there anyway; I had a Sat night party to which I invited the clergy but didn't expect them to come; and I did have a check off line for the lunch simply because you need to know how many to plan for.

Honestly, I don't remember now if I received replies from either the Rabbi or the Cantor but I tend to lean toward no. I don't think they bothered sending back the reply. And I was neither surprised nor annoyed, nor did I see it as a slight or in any way impolite. We were simply inviting them as a courtesy and while we would have been delighted if they'd come, we didn't expect them to.

I know they get invited to every Bar & Bat Mitzvah and like you and your husband, they probably just attend the ones for the families with whom they have a social rel@tionship. I also know that the clergy will be there for the lunch that day and that they (and their wives if they are regular attenders) are already included in the count of those congregants I'm paying for aside from the people I invite. Because of this, the actual reply from the clergy, accepting or declining, would make no difference in my final count for the lunch.

So, although many may disagree with me, I don't really think you need to reply if they are only inviting you to the lunch.

gellchom

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Thank you all so much for giving your thought and time to this very esoteric problem!  I really appreciate that you were all sensitive to why this is a problem for me.  Your terrific responses have made all the difference for me, and I just can't tell you how much I appreciate it.

Here's what I came away with.  Before reading all your responses, I did what lowspark suggested, and with that exact reasoning.  I still think that that is an acceptable approach, and I probably will still do it sometimes.

But many of you said to go ahead and respond yes even if I am not really committing to attend.  I didn't think that was a good idea before, but you have convinced me otherwise.  As Aeris points out, there is very little chance of them even noticing I wasn't there -- they probably won't think about it, and even if they do, they won't know for sure that they just didn't happen to see me in the crowd.  Plenty of them probably aren't even sure what I look like.

But it might make them feel happy to get the "yes" in the mail rather than nothing.  Everyone likes to feel that their event is special to every one.  And sometimes it's hard to remember, at least for families that don't themselves attend synagogue regularly, that to most of us, it's just one more out of all the b'nei mitzvah -- there is one most weeks.  (I remember once some person from out of town bumping me into someplace and saying, "Do you remember when we met three years ago when I was in Columbus for the bar mitzvah?"  THE bar mitzvah?!  Lady, you've got to be kidding.)

I'm not worried about the problem of having them order food for me that I don't show up to eat (and accordingly I'm not going to call and let them know I won't be coming -- I mean, even if I do come, I don't feel like I have an obligation to eat, or not to eat even if I didn't respond to an invitation or didn't get one at all).  The reason is that you have to order food for blocks of 25.  So it really makes no difference in their count -- in fact, if they are thinking carefully, even if we did answer yes, they should be counting us as part of the 250 base anyway, not adding us to their additional guest count.

I might feel different if this were, for example, a congregation like my cousin's, where friends of the family do all the cooking and really almost all the people there are guests invited by the family, or if we weren't a clergy family.  So I'm not saying these are one-size-fits-all answers. 

But that is exactly why I came to you for help instead of resorting to the closest possible general RSVP rule, and why I gave so much detail in the background: this was a question about the most mannerly way to handle a very specific situation.  And you came through beautifully.  Thank you so much!

CakeEater

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As to your original issue of:

 Decline.  But not only does this throw of their count if I do come (an insubstantial amount, though; it's an informal buffet, not a plated or seated meal), it seems kind of like a slap: "I already know I won't want to come that day since it's only YOUR bar/bat mitzvah."

We invited our pastor and his family to our house for lunch following DS's baptism, but we wouldn't have been at all offended if they hadn't come. We have baptisms maybe half the time at our church, and I couldn't imagine how dull it would be to attend the lunches for all of them.

Apart from that aspect, a decline might mean that you'll be out of town, or busy with something else. They don't need to know why you won't be there.

iggy257

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I am going to answer from a different perspective than everyone else.  I am also the wife of a clergyman, although we are Christian.

As for the RSVP, if the invitation is to both you and your husband, then your husband is the person that needs to respond and say that he is going to the lunches.  This is part of his job and one I am sure that he was well aware of during his schooling.  Not to make you feel like a lesser person, but he is the more important party in this case and needs to attend the celebration held at the temple.  If the invitation is to you only, and was sent to every person then you can either ignore it or respond since you will be counted as part of the congregation.  Feel free to respond in the negative for the evening parties that you would not ordinarily attend.  Etiquette says they have to invite you, but most of the time they do not expect that you will be able to attend, because as you said, you would be overwhelmed.

As for a bit of less solicited advice in general, which you can ignore if you wish.  The older families in congregations can be very easily offended and often love to gossip.  I have had several wives of pastors that have coached me in these issues, I will say that I have a bit of an out as I have two handicapped children who require extraordinary care, so that I can sometimes avoid these sort of situations, but I understand that sometimes I have to be places and do things that I would rather not do.  Please remember that for better or worse, the members of the congregation pay his salary, and it is better to tread lightly than offend.  When you do attend these lunches, the reading was wonderful, the food was lovely, and the family must be so proud.  Then I would retreat into a corner and chat with some friends.

Blessings.