Mitzvah Market Magazine: A Mother’s Take, Visiting Israel For My Daughter’s Bat Mitzvah

Mitzvah Market Magazine: A Mother’s Take, Visiting Israel For My Daughter’s Bat Mitzvah

By Jennifer Unter (mom of Lila Mueller)
I had my Bat Mitzvah on Masada in 1982 and I hoped it would be as significant for my daughter, Lila, when it was her turn.

When I started planning a trip to Israel for her Bat Mitzvah, so many thoughts fought for supremacy: will it be too hot in July for my 78-year-old father? Will our 10-year-old son make it through one day doing both Yad Vashem and the Israeli Museum? Will it be safe for all of us? And, most importantly, will it be as meaningful for Lila as my Bat Mitzvah trip to Israel was for me?

I didn’t grow up in a particularly religious family. We celebrated Shabbat by having dinner all together on Friday nights, but rarely went to synagogue. I wasn’t sure about God, but when I went to Israel, I felt the presence of something greater than myself. I saw people at the Western Wall praying together (at the time, it wasn’t separated by gender), leaving notes and I was struck by how powerful it felt to believe. That trip didn’t change the role of religion in my life, but it left me with a love for Israel and Israelis and pride in being a Jew that has never gone away. I returned when I was 16 for a teen tour, but I hadn’t been back since, so I was more than past due for a trip to the Holy Land.

Fast forward over 30 years, and here I was, planning a trip for two kids, my husband and father to experience Lila becoming a Bat Mitzvah on Masada. I was planning this trip in the midst of planning her New York Bat Mitzvah. That was a Saturday service with Kiddush luncheon and Saturday night party for 150 people. I knew the event would be special since we love our synagogue, CSAIR in Riverdale, and had wonderful family and friends in attendance, but this trip to Israel was a gift from my father to our family, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. I tried to impart my excitement to the kids, especially Lila, but I felt that my words fell short. I figured they’ll love it as much as I did when we got there.

Instead of doing the Bat Mitzvah tour, on a friend’s recommendation we hired Tiyul Acher (en.tiyulacher.com) a company that organizes private tours (and that I highly recommend) to plan our trip and provide a local guide to take us around the country. We saw the Golan Heights, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Dead Sea, Masada, Be’er Sheva and Netanya. Our days were jam packed with activities: ATVing up the Hermon mountain with a dip in a fresh water spring, picking berries I had never heard of (white mulberries!), water hikes, walking over the Old City walls in Jerusalem, Kotel tunnel tour, camel riding, seeing a ton of family on my father’s side in Tel Aviv…I could go on and on. And the food: the best hummus and labne I’ve ever eaten in a tiny restaurant in a Druze village, and to-die-for falafel and unforgettable pita with lamb from a stall in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem.

I knew the kids were having a ball, but our son, Simon, seemed more engaged than Lila, asking the tour guide lots of questions about the places we visited. Despite admonishments from both my husband and me to stay off her phone, we saw Lila pulling it out, presumably to take pictures, but she was also surreptitiously texting and keeping tabs on what her friends were doing. Was any of this sinking in? Was she understanding what a special trip she was on and appreciating it?

Masada was toward the end of the trip, and we planned to hike up the snake trail at 4:30 am to see the sunrise. Close family friends who we met when Lila and their son were in nursery school were in Israel for the month, so we joined forces for a short but meaningful B’nai Mitzvah ceremony at King Herod’s Northern Palace.

The hike up Masada was arduous for my father and I was worried he wouldn’t be able to get to the top and see the ceremony. But, amazingly, he made it and we were all there, at this incredibly well-preserved palace, sweating in the blazing sun and watching the two young teens become bona fide members of the Jewish community. After touring the breath-taking site of Masada, we headed down the cable car, exhausted, to lounge by the pool and escape the overwhelming heat.

We had one more day in Israel after that, and I could tell we were ready to go home. The non-stop days had taken their toll (not to mention some early jet lag) and sleeping in our own beds after 12 nights away was a tempting prospect. Before we left, I asked Lila how she felt about the trip. Enthusiastically, she told me she loved it.

Back in New York, after a few days of sleeping in, she wrote her piece for Mitzvah Market Magazine, and it was then that I realized how much she did take in on the trip. She clearly understood both the beauty and hardship of Israel and the role it plays in the life of Jews around the world. When I think about the trip, I’m overcome with gratitude to my father for taking us, pride in Lila’s growth and maturity, and love for my family and for the country of Israel.

Read Finding My Place in the World in the Holyland by Lila Mueller, Jennifer’s daughter here.

Jennifer Unter is a book agent in New York and mother of two children, Lila and Simon.

BAR/BAT MITZVAH CEREMONY SITES
There are many wonderful places to choose from to have your Bar/Bat Mitzvah services and celebrations in Israel. The most popular days for services are Monday, Thursdays and Saturdays. Make sure to confirm that the location of your choice is open on the day you wish to have your ceremony. Go to bar-and-bat-mitzvah-in-israel.com to view the different locations. Here are some of the most popular ones:

The Western Wall, known also as The Kotel. The Western Wall Heritage Foundation offers a free service to help families with everything from initial planning of the event to helping conduct or explain the service. Additional assistance is available, including lending Tefillin (phylacteries), or Talitot
(prayer shawls), and organizing a tour of the Western Wall tunnels for the Bar/Bat Mitzvah child and family following the service.

The Southern Wall, Jerusalem, is no less holy than the Western Wall, for it is part of the remaining Southern enclosure of the Temple Mount. Unlike at the Western Wall, ceremonies are held according to your and your Rabbi’s traditions – so men and women can celebrate, sit and pray together.

Neot Kedumim: The Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel is located halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. This unique recreation of the physical setting of the Bible in all its depth and detail allows visitors to see life as it was lived by our ancestors 3,000 years ago.

The Western Wall Tunnels, (Strictly Orthodox), is one of Israel’s most splendid archeological discoveries. The Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem: Private ceremonies may be held in the historic courtyard and gardens at the ancient citadel.

The Hurva Synagogue: Destroyed in the War of Independence in 1948, it is now a simple and elegant memorial. It has become a symbol of the Jews’ return to the holiest city.

Synagogues around Israel: A synagogue in Jerusalem, or anywhere in Israel is an ideal location, especially if you wish to hold the service on Shabbat.

Masada: Ceremonies atop Masada are held in the remains of the Zealots’ Synagogue, said to be the world’s oldest Synagogue still in use. Services are conducted by a rabbi of your choice, according to orthodox, conservative, reform or reconstructionist tradition.

RESOURCES FOR BAR/BAT MITZVAH TRAVEL TO ISRAEL
• Tova Gilead, Inc., tovagilead.com – As a tour operator since 1982, Gilead operates small, upscale and unique tours. Three-generation family trips are her specialty.
• ARZA World, arzaworld.com – ARZA World creates 9, 11 and 13 day comprehensive tours of Israel with local reform rabbis performing the Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony in Jerusalem at the Southern Wall at the Davidson Center, The Goldman Promenade, Mt. Scopus, or on the rooftop of Hebrew Union College.
• Israel Discover Tours, israeldiscoverytours.com– This company is family owned and operated for 25 years, offering three different tours (12 day Deluxe, 14 day Deluxe or December Deluxe), with options for different budgets. The ceremony is at Masada and presentation of certificates is in front of the Menorah outside the Knesset (the Israel Parliament).
• Authentic Israel, authenticisrael.com – Find a wide range of programs including family and celebration experiences and custom private tours. They arrange the tour, ceremony and celebration. On the family tour, they provide a tour leader and a youth counselor.
• Travel and Events in Israel, travelandeventsinisrael.com – Custom tailored for your family, they help with your itinerary, book hotels according to your budget, connect you with a rabbi who will assign the Torah portion and make all necessary arrangements. They also offer custom special events at unique destinations in Israel.
• Mabat Platinum, LTD., mabat.com – Designs a tailor-made trip for you and your family.
• Gil Travel, giltravel.com – With over 40 years of experience, Gil Travel can help you plan a private tour or organize a group tour, while arranging all of the touring details.
• Jewish National Fund Travel and Tours, jnf.org– Join a Bar/Bat Mitzvah tour or plan a private one and have your service at the Southern Wall in Jerusalem or other sites throughout Israel. JNF also provides other opportunities including planting trees in Israel, coordinating a Mitzvah Project and participating in the B’nai Mitzvah Remembrance Wall.
• Keshet, keshetisrael.co.il – The Center for Educational Tourism in Israel helps you create a tailor-made Bar/Bat Mitzvah trip to Israel that introduces your family to the land and history through youth centered programming, hands-on Mitzvah Projects and encounters with local people.

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