The first generations of American Jews earned a reputation as progressive politically but morally disciplined. The current generation of young Jews, though, lacks those ethical foundations. We have raised a generation of super-consumers often contemptuous of Judaism — because it offers no alternative to suburban superficiality — and addicted to modern America's vices.
A Hillel poll of entering college freshman last summer found the average Jewish student more liberal and libertarian than most — but also more libertine. Eighty-nine percent of Jews versus 52% of non-Jews supported abortion; 49% of Jews versus 32% of non-Jews backed marijuana legalization; 69% of Jews versus 38% of non-Jews approved of casual premarital sex, and, most disturbing, 73% of Jewish students identified financial success as their priority, rather than developing a meaningful philosophy of life...
The standard post-bar-mitzvah question should be "To whom did you give?" not "What did you get?" No one should spend more on a party than they have contributed to charity in a given year. Similarly, in lieu of gifts for all birthday parties, we should give cards designating gifts to charities. We need not be fanatic — close family can give some special gifts while encouraging others to donate.
To the extent that this beneficent redirection would end that crass equation wherein gifts are proportionate to the party's costs, perhaps donating would help scale back these extravaganzas because the family is not "making back the money." Consider informal barbecues, picnics, pool parties and mystery bus rides as more age-appropriate activities; consider a group outing to a local soup kitchen or a hospital, or a family tour to Israel, as more befitting a Jewish rite of passage.
Gil Troy in The Forward, lamenting the materialism of today's Jewish youth. The problem with Troy's theory, and this goes for nearly the entire Left-wing Jewish intelligensia, is that he fails to grasp that very ethos of "social justice" liberalism who's end he eulogizes here is exactly what has led us to this point. The idea of charity, good works, etc. being the only real expression of Judaism has led directly to the materialistic view of life he so despises. American Judaism outside of the Orthodox world has fostered a universalized, materialized form of Judaism devoid of its spiritual/mystical content, thus creating a spiritual wasteland into which, naturally, the pursuit of financial gain has come to dominate. "...informal barbecues, picnics, pool parties...a group outing to a local soup kitchen..." this is going to revitalize Jewish life and identity? How about reading the Torah? How about reading Gershom Scholem on the Kabbalah and the significance of Messianism in Jewish history? How about actually reading the writing of the Zionists Troy claims to admire? How about learning to read and speak Hebrew? How about engaging the immensity of Jewish civilization and history in a real, honest way? How about skipping that pool party and actually learning something about the people you claim to belong to? How about that?