Mitzvah Market Magazine: A Journey Through History, Heritage and the Holy Land

Mitzvah Market Magazine: A Journey Through History, Heritage and the Holy Land

By Emily Ray Baraf

We live in an age of hyper-personalization, and yet, some of life’s greatest milestones and rites of passage have become rote and even ordinary. This is just what Jacey and Daniel Taub, of Rye Brook, NY, wanted to avoid when planning their son Zack’s Bar Mitzvah.

Having lived through the Bar/Bat Mitzvah scene a few years earlier with their daughter Lily, they wanted Zack’s Bar Mitzvah to be more than just another party with dinner and dancing (though they wanted that, too). They wanted to find a way to make sure the religious and cultural meaning was paramount in the whole experience, truly forging the connection of what it meant to become a Bar Mitzvah.

So, mom Jacey, and dad Daniel, began to think about doing the Bar Mitzvah in Israel. It seemed like the perfect solution. And, while the initial thought may have percolated around the time of Lily’s Bat Mitzvah, the real seeds were planted almost 20 years earlier when Jacey and Daniel ventured to Israel on a family trip. “I was young and had been working non-stop, and then all of the sudden I was part of this multi-generational group of people ages 8-80 for two weeks,” recalls Jacey. “It just felt so special and incredibly meaningful. I wanted to re-create that feeling for my kids.”

Once Zack was on board, Jacey began planning a trip that would be truly special. It needed to be more than just a vacation or a big tour, it needed to be a journey that would ignite a deeper love of Judaism and an appreciation of the values and history inherent in it. “We live in a very Jewish area, and I often worry that the ‘specialness’ of being Jewish is lost on my kids. They take it for granted. I wanted this trip to kindle a newfound love and appreciation for not only the religion, but also our family heritage and all that we’d overcome.”

Planning the kind of trip that would check all those boxes was a huge undertaking and became Jacey’s full time job. “I think you get out of it what you put into it…. Basically, I didn’t sleep,” she recalls. She talked to people, searched the Internet and put a lot of thought into what kinds of experiences would make a genuine impact. “I knew I wanted to support the Reform Jewish movement causes on our trip, so our rabbi suggested using ARZA WORLD and Da’at Educational Expeditions to help coordinate things on the ground.”

Despite having a “team” helping her out, Jacey remained firmly in the captain’s seat. She made sure she was an integral part of each and every detail. She Googled, brainstormed and brought her ideas to the experts at ARZA, hoping it was something they could execute. “I didn’t want mainstream,” she says. “I did have to accept that sometimes things wouldn’t work out, but I also made it a point to be really explicate in what I had in mind. More than once, I found myself explaining and re-explaining until I was confident that my ideas had been properly communicated. In short, I made sure that I was creating the kind of experience I wanted, even if that meant a one-on-one with ARZA’s CEO.”

Though it was trying at times, the hard work paid off. From day one, the Taub’s 10-day journey to Israel was unique, meaningful and imbued with spirituality and family history. The very fact of the trip alone was symbolic, creating another entry in the family history book. Almost 20 years to the day after Jacey and Daniel’s first trip, there they were again with the whole family. “It was (basically) the same group, only this time the tree had changed; some of the leaves had fallen off but there were also new branches.”

In many ways it felt like they had come full circle. Decades prior, Zack’s great-great-grandfather had sought refuge in what had then been Palestine. Jacey couldn’t help but wonder what he’d think if he could have seen this group of 26 — including four generations of his family — arriving in Israel to affirm their Judaism.

Rather than take the more common approach of starting in Tel Aviv and ending in Jerusalem, building up to a big Bar Mitzvah finale of the trip, they flipped things upside down. “I didn’t want Zack to be nervous the whole trip,” says Jacey. “I knew after he fulfilled his Bar Mitzvah commitment, he’d be able to more wholeheartedly enjoy himself.”

So, they began in Jerusalem, had the Bar Mitzvah at Masada, and then made their way to Tel-Aviv. It unfolded like a journey; starting with religion and history, and culminating in the energy of everyday Israeli life in the city. Along the way they hit all the major sites, getting the full depth of experience in each location.

They didn’t just go to the shuk and look around, they brought a chef, went shopping and then cooked a meal as a group. They didn’t just venture into souvenir stores, they visited a Kabbalah jewelry store and got a taste of Jewish Mysticism. They didn’t just visit war memorial sites, they went to an active base and interacted with Israeli soldiers. In fact, they took this one step further and spent a day with Brothers for Life, an Israeli-based charity focused on helping injured soldiers reintegrate into everyday life.

They spent time with the Brothers for Life community and played a full game of basketball, with each participant playing seated, from a wheelchair, like many of the soldiers. Watching “our whole group, ages 3-73, sitting in wheelchairs, playing with these soldiers, was an amazing experience,” she says. The soldiers thought so too. At the end of the day, they presented Zack with a Tanach – a Hebrew bible — with a heartfelt inscription.

Listening to the soldiers’ stories, made Judaism, Zionism, religion, history and the spiritual meaning of it all come alive, explains Jacey. The experience left an indelible mark on the group, especially Zack. “He left the base thinking, ‘I want to fight for this country; I want to be in the (Israeli) army,’” says his mom.

The actual Bar Mitzvah ceremony took place on top of Masada. Like everything else, it was meticulously planned and entirely unique. When their hopes of having their clergy accompany them on the trip didn’t pan out, Jacey’s cantor in Rye Brook connected her with her cantorial teacher in Israel. The Taubs had a very specific idea of what kind of service they wanted. “I didn’t like that my daughter’s service felt somewhat ‘off the shelf.’ I wanted something more personal this time, so I actually wrote Zack’s service,” says Jacey. “The cantor was amazing at adding the musical element to the service, which is very important. She also put Zackat ease and conducted the service to match what we had in mind. The entire day became a beautiful celebration about welcoming Zack into the Jewish community. It incorporated family, felt relatable and utilized prayers that really meant something to us. Furthermore, we got to integrate pictures, quotes and family heritage. Zack read the Shema out of the prayer book my great-grandmother brought with her when she emigrated, and we drank wine made by her husband, my great-grandfather, that we carried in our suitcases. It was all just so meaningful.”

Jacey also coordinated with a local photographer. “I really wanted a fantastic photographer to capture this once-in-a-lifetime experience so I asked a friend who had lived in Israel for a recommendation of someone great…and he was. He even used a drone!”

Capturing these moments was incredibly important, because ultimately, it was so much more than just a singular religious event, she says. “There are no words that I can put with the image of Zack reading from Buby’s prayer book. All I could think was how far we’ve come. We didn’t just overcome, we’ve persevered and prospered. My great grandparents experienced such sadness and took so many risks to find a better life. They witnessed atrocities, left their home, lost many family members and had to say good bye to loved ones they knew they would never see again. Here we were, their living legacies, all together, freely celebrating everything they held dear and we were the fruits of their labor. I think they would have been kvelling if they could have seen their family now. I had a true moment of gratitude and appreciation.”

Though the Bar Mitzvah ceremony took place in Israel, the family also threw a party to celebrate the event back home. “I wanted to bring some of our journey into the event.” Jacey says. Again, it was all about the experience.

The day began with a service project in which Zack’s friends and the kids from the boarding school he’d been working with as part of his Mitzvah Project, came together to clean up and enhance the school’s gym. They painted bricks and fixed the muddy walkway that often made the gym’s entrance impassable. This was followed by a group excursion to the Westchester Knick’s final game and then later that night there was a party on the Westchester county basketball court. The theme, All-4- One – in addition to being the date of the party (April 1) — was a nod to the final four basketball game, which also occurred that evening. It also referred to teamwork and working together.

“Because there wasn’t a Torah service that day, we invited people to join us in doing a community service project,” says Jacey. “It was important to bring in the idea of Tikkun Olam because this was a celebration of a major Jewish milestone, not a 13th birthday party.”

They also weaved pieces of their Israeli experience into the event. Large monitors alternated footage of the basketball finals, with pictures of their trip. There was a table featuring images of the soldiers they’d met at the base where guests could write notes and/or thank-yous to them. The Havdalah service between the cocktail hour and the main event utilized the same candle they’d used in Israel and spices from various places in Israel including Yad Vashem. Jacey also made little spice bags so each person could take a small piece of Israel home.

Though mainly a kids’ party, the adults in attendance all received little hamsa bags purchased at the Sarona Market in Tel Aviv, filled with Hebrew Bazooka Joe gum and a rubber bracelet symbolizing a donation made to Brothers for Life.

The party brought home the idea of getting outside oneself and helping others. It wasn’t just about Zack the Bar Mitzvah boy; it was about Zack as a leader who could bring people together, working toward a common goal and for a greater good, explains Jacey. “In the end, it was about creating a feeling and an emotion.”

That’s what the Taubs did at every turn. They fostered an energy, set a tone and then leaned into the experience. “I like to think we planted seeds that will blossom into an even greater love for Judaism. My kids always tease me that I’m ‘super-Jew,’ but I feel like throughout this experience we were successful at creating a new family folklore and fostering experiences and memories that will remain etched into our minds, hearts and souls. I remember as we left Israel, my daughter had a ring engraved with the Shema on her finger and my son had a mezuzah around his neck and I just felt like they got it.”

Mitzvah Market - Bar/Bat Mitzvah Planning Resource

Get your FREE copy here

Posted in Mitzvah Ideas, Judaica and tagged .