Where and Why to Have Your Celebration Out of Town
By Lori S. Robinson
Imagine a joyous parade that bursts with music, dance, song and the blowing of a shofar as it winds its way through the narrow cobblestoned streets of Tzfat, an ancient Galilee city of mysticism and Kabbalah. Your family, swept into the experience, sings, dances and swirls around your Bar or Bat Mitzvah child who is sheltered under a tallit chuppah. Together you travel through the old Jewish Quarter towards a gorgeous 16th century synagogue to celebrate your child’s coming of age.
Photo left: Courtesy Israel Tour Connection
There are many reasons to have a destination Bar or Bat Mitzvah. The most obvious place to celebrate is in Israel. Such a trip can be a wonderful family bonding experience. It may also be an option to consider for a shy student who would rather not chant on the bimah in front of hundreds of people in your home congregation. In Israel you can make it a more personalized, impactful experience on a smaller scale with just close family and friends. Whatever the case, celebrating in Israel can be an experience to last a lifetime.
After Eva Wisnik’s son David became a Bar Mitzvah in Israel, he continued studying at his synagogue’s Hebrew high school in Tarrytown, NY. He was one of only a handful of students who went all the way through high school to graduation. “The experience of being Bar Mitzvahed in Israel clearly solidified his Jewish identity,” says Wisnik. “What more could a parent ask for from that rite of passage?”
Should you be considering a Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebration and tour in the Holy land, your very first stop should be at the Israel Ministry of Tourism website, http://www.goisrael.com, or call 1-888-77-ISRAEL, for an overview of your many options and a host of resources.
WHO “QUALIFIES” TO BE BAR/BAT MITZVAH IN ISRAEL?
According to an Israel Ministry of Tourism there is no educational requirement to fulfill to accept the responsibility of Jewish adulthood. A Bar/Bat Mitzvah simply needs to be Jewish. Traditionally, boys are at least 13 years old and girls, 12 or 13. Of course, celebrants well into legal adulthood can also be Bar/Bat Mitzvah.
The ceremony itself does call for the reading of a Torah portion related to the chosen date and this can be coordinated beforehand with the rabbi performing the ceremony. If the Bar/Bat Mitzvah has not attended religious school or learned
Hebrew, he or she may be tutored beforehand, in person or via Skype or Facetime.
Israel Ministry of Tourism
WHAT KIND OF TRIP IS RIGHT FOR YOUR FAMILY?
Once you have surfed the Internet and gotten a feel for where and when you want to go, it’s time to start making some
Many organizations and travel companies offer group Bar/Bat Mitzvah tours in Israel where everything is arranged for you— from the rabbi to the ceremony site to the itinerary. Done! There are other advantages too: Other families with children the same ages are likely to share the trip with you, and many tour companies “comp” the tour for the Bar/Bat Mitzvah child.
If your synagogue is planning a trip to Israel, talk to your rabbi and see if he or she would perform a Bar/Bat Mitzvah while you arethere. Or, if you do the trip on your own, you can offer to invite your rabbi to come as your guest, so that the ceremony is further imbued with meaning.
Another type of trip is a customized private tour with a qualified tour guide who can arrange all the details of your Bar/Bat Mitzvah service, celebration and touring. This arrangement gives your family lots of flexibility — do you want to sleep late, go rafting, see historical sites or learn more about anything in-depth? Your guide will also have all the inside info on the best times and ways to get around. On this type of trip, you may have to plan your own flights and accommodations. Many of the same groups that offer group tours will also work with you to customize a private tour.
If you are visiting family in Israel, or if have been to the country before and know exactly what your family would like to do and see, you may want a do-it-yourself trip, where you do all the research and planning. Of course, the Israel Ministry of Tourism is there to fill in the blanks, providing everything from a list of rabbis to party locations. Go to www.goIsrael.com and search “Tourist Information” for “Jewish Themes.”
Having a Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony in Israel does not mean you have to forgo the hoopla that usually comes with the event
at home. Your touring party can be as small or large as you’d like, with grandparents, cousins and friends all attending the ceremony, whether it’s being held in a hotel, a synagogue or at an historic site.
Most families dress less formally for the ceremony in Israel than they might have at home, mostly in deference to the heat. Wearing white clothing is a great choice and can give a coordinated look in photos. Do remember to check dress codes in some locations where women are expected to cover their arms and skimpy clothing is not acceptable.
While many families choose a casual post-cremony celebratory meal (perhaps in a Bedouin tent), or decide to continue touring, others work with a planner to produce a party that can rival any at home (fire-eaters, anyone?). The options are unlimited.
Many families choose to hire a professional photographer to record the ceremony and celebration in Israel – or even their entire trip because it is such a once-in-a-lifetime event.
WHERE SHOULD THE BAR BAT MITZVAH CEREMONY BE HELD?
There are a myriad of places to hold a ceremony in Israel, but the trick is finding the place that is right for you and your entire party of travelers. For instance, if your group includes young children or the elderly, you might want to avoid places that require a hike to reach, have no seating or are in unrelenting sun. Of course, if there is a will there’s a way to make almost any site work.
Additionally, while it’s true that in many locations you can hire a rabbi to perform the ceremony according to whatever Jewish tradition you adhere to, many sites, especially synagogues and a few sites of religious significance, require services be done only in their tradition, whether it’s reform, conservative or orthodox.
Keep in mind that the most popular days for Bar/Bat Mitzvah services in Israel are Mondays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Rosh Chodesh (the first day of every month), and the most popular time is very early in the morning.
Have a spiritual, meaningful Bar Bat Mitzvah high above the desert or walk through an Israeli town under a chuppah to your celebration
TRADITIONAL CEREMONY SITES
These popular Bar/Bat Mitzvah sites are the ones most often included in group tours:
The Kotel (Western Wall)
The Kotel is perhaps the holiest site in Israel to hold a Bar Mitzvah. Bat Mitzvahs are not allowed at the Western Wall. All the services are Orthodox, and women do not stand up with their sons. Men and women are seated in separate sections (not necessarily with equal views or within equal earshot).
The Israel Ministry of Tourism points everyone to www.barmitzva.thekotel.org/en to plan ceremonies at the Wall. As the website explains, the Western Wall Heritage Center oversees all Bar Mitzvah proceedings, which are free. Bar Mitzvahs register one month in advance, and on arrival, will be assigned a Bar Mitzvah Guide to walk them through the process step by step. The center will provide a Sefer Torah, and a small table, and is happy to lend celebrants teffillin.
Other things to note: Entrance to the Western Wall Plaza requires walking through the Old City and going through airport-like security check (total time – 1 hour). In the fall and winter, and any time rain threatens, the Torah cannot be taken out, so Bar Mitzvahs take place under Wilson’s Arch.
To enhance your party’s experience, consider adding a tour of the adjacent “Generations” exhibit or of the Western Wall tunnels. With a little pre-planning and some tutorial, the Bar Mitzvah boy can actually lead the tour (with some help from a guide).
Robinson’s Arch and the Davidson Center
There are places along the Wall, no less holy, that do accommodate both Bar and Bat Mitzvah services.
“My favorite Bar/Bat Mitzvah location in Israel is Robinson’s Arch,” says Rabbi David Holtz, of Temple Beth Abraham in Tarrytown, NY. “We hold the ceremony at the southwest corner of the Temple Mount, standing on the very paving stones on which our ancestors walked. Facing us in front of the Wall is a jumbled pile of huge blocks, all that remains of the arch and of the Temple that stood above. In the year 70 A.D., Roman soldiers stood atop the Temple Mount and threw these very stones to the ground below, cracking the pavers.” He remains amazed that 2000 years later, Jews are still here, making this a very special place for a ceremony.
Ilona Marsh’s eldest daughter Sydney was Bat Mitzvahed under the arch. “During Sydney’s service, tourists stopped to watch. We ran into some of them later in the Old City and several women told Sydney how meaningful it was for them to watch a girl become a Bat Mitzvah.” She added that they even asked for her daughter’s name to record in their trip journals.
Robinson’s Arch, the Hulda Steps (a great place to sit or hold the ceremony when the shade leaves from Robinson’s Arch later in the day) and the Davidson Center are all part of the Jerusalem Archeological Park. The Davidson Center offers visitors an interactive, virtual-reality reconstruction of the Temple Mount and its environs. Note: The Davidson Center is closed on Saturdays.
An hour away from Jerusalem are the ruins of King Herod’s palace fortress on top of Mount Masada, a powerful symbol of Jewish resistance to foreign subjugation.
At 8 a.m., the first cable car climbs up the mount overlooking the Dead Sea to perhaps the world’s oldest synagogue still in use. By 8:30 a.m. it hosts Bar and Bat Mitzvahs in all traditions, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist. After the service, every Bar/Bat Mitzvah has the unique honor, under the tutelage of a Torah Scribe, of adding a single letter to the Masada Torah scroll.
Ceremonies must be arranged ahead of time by contacting the
Masada National Park (www.masada.org.il/en).
LESS TRADITIONAL, BUT FANTASTIC ISRAELI CEREMONY SITES
These sites can be as wonderful as the more traditional ones, but
may require an event planner to coordinate all events.
Tzfat, to Israel’s north, is one of the country’s four holy cities. It is a picturesque city of spiritual people and artists, and a great place to hold a coming-of-age ceremony.
The musical parade, described earlier, leading to one of Tzfat’s four 16th century synagogues, can be arranged through the Tzfat Bar/Bat Mitzvah Center (http://www.bat-barmitzvah-tzfat.com/) or the Otzar Hastem of Tzfat (http://hastam.org/?page_id=52).
Besides the artist colony and the International Kabbalah Center, a must-see is the Otzar HaStem of Tzfat Experience (phone 011-972-4-691-2000), bringing the world of Scribes and the mystical secrets of Hebrew Letters to life. Built by the same people who design educational adventure rides at Epcot in Disney World, this adventure moves visitor’s seats into an immersive, multi-sensory, virtual reality world, complete with a holographic scribe.
Eretz Bereshit (Genesis Land)
Sarina Stein, of Irvington, NY, became Bat Mitzvah at Eretz Bereshit, on an overlook high over the Judean Desert. “We were a bit skeptical because it’s a place that’s known to be touristy; where people dress up in traditional garments and ride camels,” says her mother Ilona Marsh. “But we got there just after sunrise, before anything was open to the public. There was a beautiful bimah set up” and Sarina’s Bat Mitzvah felt very spiritual, connected to nature and to the history of the Jewish
The “touristy” bit that the Steins were wary of could, in fact, be the very thing to enliven and enhance a family trip. Genesis Land, not far from Jerusalem, is more than a simple reenactment of biblical times; it is an interactive experience. The Patriarch Abraham’s servant meets your group and invites you to travel by camel to the Abraham’s tent. On the way, the caravan meets Joseph’s brothers, just before the siblings throw their brother into a pit. The servant continues to weave familiar tales. Once enjoying the hospitality of Abraham’s tent, families can join in on pita-making, parchment writing or pottery workshops.
Nature lover? Neot Kedumin (http://www.neot-kedumim.org.il/), halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, is a large, biblical landscape reserve whose plant life and sweeping vistas are the setting of many popular bible stories. A Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony here, under a sukkah, draws on Bible references to nature and you can work with Neot Kedumin’s party planner to design a reception among the olive trees.
OTHER GREAT DESTINATIONS FOR BAR BAT MITZVAHS
While Israel will always be a popular choice for Bar/Bar Mitzvahs, an increasing number of families, perhaps influenced by the popularity of destination weddings, are seeking other locations in which to celebrate, including St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, synagogues around the world and even out at sea. Here are some places to check out:
Historic St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands
“We chose not to go to Israel because I never converted to Judaism, so I would not be allowed to be on the bimah with my kids at any of the temples there,” said Lisa Shiroff of Vorhees, NJ.
She organized a B’nai Mitzvah for her two kids (13 and 12) and her 12-year old niece at the historic St. Thomas Synagogue in St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The synagogue, the longest in continuous use under the American flag, has become a popular destination ceremony site.
“The menorah dates to the 11th century, and there is a sand floor to represent the Conversos — Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism in Europe and who covered the floors in their basements to muffle the sound of their Hebrew prayers when they observed their Jewish services in secret,” Explains Shiroff.
Madison Wynter, of Bucks County, PA, was also Bat Mitzvah at the historic synagogue, but her journey started on the Norwegian Epic cruise ship and included a Caribbeanthemed celebration. Her mom, Beth McDonnell, arranged it all because she happens to be a Tripguy.com travel agent specializing in organizing Bar/Bat Mitzvah tours. McDonnell has arranged Bar and Bat Mitzvahs at a wide array of places: a Curacao resort, synagogues in Puerto Rico, Aruba and Prague, in the Italian countryside and under a chuppah on a Mexican beach at sunset.
For a unique celebration, have a Bar Bat Mitzvah at sea
Photo courtesy Mitzvah At Sea
“Beautiful settings as the backdrop for an important event, such as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, will always be remembered and talked about for a lifetime,” according to Rabbi Steven Westman, who officiates ceremonies organized by a popular concierge B’nai.
Mitzvah planning company, Mitzvah at Sea (www.mitzvahatsea.com), which partners with several cruise companies.
Mitzvah At Sea can conduct a ceremony on the beach at a cruise line’s private island, at a resort, on an excursion during a port of call, and even on board a ship prior to it setting sail. Also known as a “Day of Embarkation” ceremony, families are able to invite friends and family who are otherwise unable to cruise, to still attend the ceremony and celebration. When they disembark, those that remain can continue to celebrate throughout the cruise.
Marissa Nemes, one of the company’s coordinators, recalls a particularly moving Havdallah service on the deck of Majesty of the Seas: “As the sun set, a group of 48, with arms linked, swayed and sang along to the rabbi playing hymns on his guitar. I am always amazed at how family and friends, regardless of the group size or dynamics, bonds, unites, and comes together to celebrate.”
Beth McDonnell, echoed that sentiment: “Wherever your family chooses to mark and celebrate this important Jewish milestone, there is nothing like spending those days with the people who mean the most to you. Mazel Tov!”
Israel: Is it Safe?
Israel has arguably the best security forces and technology in the entire world. While there might always be some unrest in the region, the country’s level of preparedness for any problem is without equal, and Israelis are accustomed to unforeseen changes in plans. Rest assured that if the danger level is deemed too high, a travel alert would be issued. That being said, it is always a smart idea to ask your trip organizers and event planners about their cancellation policy, and to purchase trip cancellation insurance.
• The Kotel (Western Wall): www.barmitzva.thekotel.org/en
• Masada National Park: www.masada.org.il/en
• Tzfat Bar/Bat Mitzvah Center: www.bat-barmitzvah-tzfat.com
• Otzar Hastem of Tzfat: http://hastam.org/?page_id=52
• Neot Kedumin: www.neot-kedumim.org.il
Information and groups that organize Israel Bar/Bat Mitzvah trips:
• Israel Ministry of Tourism: www.goisrael.com, 1-888-77-ISRAEL
• Amit: https://amitchildren.org/connect-to-israel/amit-mission/
• Emunah: http://www.emunah.org/project_batbarmitzvah.php
• UJA-Federation: www.ujafedny.org/travel/
• Ayelet Tours: www.ayelet.com
• Israeli Discovery Tours: www.israeldiscoverytours.com
• Jewish National Fund Travel and Tours: www.jnf.org/travel/BnaiMitzvah/
• Totally Jewish Travel: www.totallyjewishtravel.com/bar_bat_mitzvah/
• Israel Tour Connection: www.israeltour.com