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Bar Mitzvahs on the Beach

Destination bar and bat mitzvahs take Jewish ceremonies to exotic locations—far from the synagogue back home

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Henry Goldberg and Emily Maivlish at their joint Bar Mitzvah at Playa Del Carmen. (Courtesy Becca Goldberg)
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But Sherman pointed out that there was nothing in the Torah that said you needed to be in a synagogue for the bar mitzvah to be “official.” Indeed, bar mitzvahs are rather modern inventions. The Talmud doesn’t mention them, and neither does the Torah. The custom of 13-year-old boys being called to the Torah for the first started only in the Middle Ages. And it wasn’t until 1922, when Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, bucked tradition and had his oldest daughter Judith read from the Torah, that people began to think about having bat mitzvahs. Across denominations, there are no broadly agreed-upon rules about what this rite of passage must entail.

“Nothing whatsoever is required for a bar/bat mitzvah ceremony,” said Axelrod. “When a Jew turns 13, he or she is now considered responsible and obligated to perform the commandments and rituals. The so-called bar mitzvah ceremony is just a fancy way to commemorate and celebrate that fact.”

Comforted, Goldberg turned things over to Sherman, who led weekly Skype sessions with Henry and his friend Emily Maivlish—they shared their ceremony—to go over the Torah portion and prepare for the December bar mitzvah service. “It felt like he was in the room with me,” said Henry. “Practicing the prayers with him felt the same exact way as it did in synagogue.”

The actual ceremony took place on a Saturday in December. The men wore khakis, the women sun dresses. Henry and Emily stood under a chuppah, as the guests sat in folding chairs facing the ocean. “It was just beautiful,” said Goldberg. “We had a full-fledged service and a full Torah portion. My brother-in-law, who’s fairly religious, said ‘Oh my God, this is a real religious service. I can’t believe it.’ ”

One of the best parts about the destination bar mitzvah, Goldberg says, was the quality time the family got to spend together: “With everybody’s different schedules and lives, we’d forgotten what it was like for all of us to be together. It was heartwarming.”

***

But it’s not only travel agents who are excited about the new destination bar mitzvah trend. Foreign synagogues with declining membership also have a stake in popularizing the trend: Destination bar mitzvahs provide extra necessary income to keep their congregations running.

“Destination bar mitzvahs are my bread and butter,” said Rabbi Barbara Aiello, of Synagogue Ner Tamid del Sud in southern Italy. “We could not operate without them.” Aiello was first approached about the idea of conducting a destination bar mitzvah 10 years ago. “I said, ‘Absolutely,’ ” she said.

Today, Aiello performs about 15 destination bat mitzvahs a year in her synagogue. She requests that clients work with teachers back home to learn the service. But for students with no Jewish education, Aiello has created a program called “3-3-3” where in three months, the students learn three verses of prayer, and spend three weeks on a mitzvah project of their choosing. “My goal is for students to begin a long and strong connection to Judaism, no matter what level they’re at,” she said.

The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, the oldest functioning synagogue in North America, has the same spiritual and financial goals for its destination bar mitzvah program. The synagogue started offering bar mitzvahs 10 years ago and now performs about 40 a year. “We are a pretty small community of about 120 families,” said Mina Orenstein, the program director at the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas. “Destination bar mitzvahs have become a pretty important revenue stream for us.”

Interestingly, the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas has instituted a special requirement: Families must be members of their home congregation if they want to get bar mitzvahed there. “We don’t want to make it a free ride for someone,” said Orenstein, “or an excuse not to be part of a Jewish community.”

***

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The development of theme based Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties are part of the growing trend that moves it away from the ceremony’s intent. This sometimes even extends to the some synagogue services as it is mentioned both in the decor or the speeches. The party becomes more important than than the Torah. Once a family was asked what their theme was by another congregant at a shul that will remain nameless. The mother, puzzled, said “Bar Mitzvah”. Two weeks later an Olympics based Bar Mitzvah occurred. Talk about irony.
Synagogues must change but we can’t lose sight of why this is important..I read an article a few years ago in which a trend called “faux mitzvahs” where non-Jewish kids where having Bar Mitzvah style parties at 13. That was just weird but why not? right?

We need to stop thinking of Bar and Bat Mitzvah as crossing finish line but being handed the baton for the next leg of the race, especially if you want to think about it in terms of the Olympics. We have to help families feel that the shul is a place of comfort and help them want to be part of their shul family at this important time, and perhaps listen to others who have ideas about making it more a family experience than an individual one. It is up to synagogues to help. Books like the one mentioned and the book “Putting God on the Guest List” help parents understand the importance of the ceremony in context of its religious expression. Family education classes and meetings with parents also help.

While destination B’nai Mitzvah have a hook and make the ceremony feel special for some I wonder what is being lost for others. Jews have always thrived because of the bond of community. To paraphrase one of the 10th graders at my shul she wrote that she isn’t Jewish because she believes the miracles in the Torah she is Jewish because of the common bond of those who share a rich and vibrant tradition and a local history of synagogue, camp, youth group and tikkun olam. Maybe we should listen to the children.

The development of theme based Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties are part of the growing trend that moves it away from the ceremony’s intent. This sometimes even extends to the some synagogue services as it is mentioned both in the decor or the speeches. The party becomes more important than than the Torah. Once a family was asked what their theme was by another congregant at a shul that will remain nameless. The mother, puzzled, said “Bar Mitzvah”. Two weeks later an Olympics based Bar Mitzvah occurred. Talk about irony.
Synagogues must change but we can’t lose sight of why this is important..I read an article a few years ago in which a trend called “faux mitzvahs” where non-Jewish kids where having Bar Mitzvah style parties at 13. That was just weird but why not? right?

We need to stop thinking of Bar and Bat Mitzvah as crossing finish line but being handed the baton for the next leg of the race, especially if you want to think about it in terms of the Olympics. We have to help families feel that the shul is a place of comfort and help them want to be part of their shul family at this important time, and perhaps listen to others who have ideas about making it more a family experience than an individual one. It is up to synagogues to help. Books like the one mentioned and the book “Putting God on the Guest List” help parents understand the importance of the ceremony in context of its religious expression. Family education classes and meetings with parents also help.

While destination B’nai Mitzvah have a hook and make the ceremony feel special for some I wonder what is being lost for others. Jews have always thrived because of the bond of community. To paraphrase one of the 10th graders at my shul she wrote that she isn’t Jewish because she believes the miracles in the Torah she is Jewish because of the common bond of those who share a rich and vibrant tradition and a local history of synagogue, camp, youth group and tikkun olam. Maybe we should listen to the children.

Reptilian2012 says:

The challenge is that more often than not, not understanding the importance of the ceremony is a symptom of a broader condition that can’t be cured by a bar mitzvah crash course book.

Guest says:

fds

chaim lieberperson says:

Note: Judith Kaplan did not read Torah in 1922. Rather, she led parts of service. Torah reading for woman comes later in US/Banot Mitzvah history. Chaim Lieberperson, Education Manager, Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU.

While that is technically true, she did read from a Chumash at the service.

I wasn’t saying it could.

Guest says:

This is wrong on so many levels, crystallized by Jordan Berkovitz’s quote, “…I think a bat mitzvah should be about what you like.” No, no, NO! If that’s how children and families view a Bar/Bat Mitzvah then they are missing the point and will never understand what a Bat Mitzvah is about. Sure, go hiking and camping and jump in the pool, but that’s not a Bar/Bat Mitzvah – that could be part of the celebration. If parents are throwing $100,000 parties, there’s something wrong with them, not the practice of Bar/Bat Mitzvah. No one says you have to have an extravaganza. Have a simple Kiddush luncheon following your ceremony and let each family deliver a dvar to the child. Or let the family get involved in a local social action project–together–so the child will see how his/her family values what it means to be part of a community. Sheesh!

A shonda. A balagan. But these are just an outgrowth of the move to create gala celebrations and parties, catered to the nines, DJs galore, which follow a Shaharit service that most family members and guests just put up with, before the bus leaves for the catering hall which will be serving shrimp cocktails. The problem starts right in our synagogues and culture. In fact the problem is not the destination. It is the origin. Anybody want a cool destination? Daven at the wall, or on Masada, with your first aliyah – now THAT’s what I call a righteous bar mitzvah.

Rabbi Goldie Milgram says:

There is wisdom in listening to where our people are going with b’nei mitzvah. If the destination becomes the primary content of the b’nei mitzvah preparation process, then yes, much of value may be lost to the youth and family. If the destination achieves a) greater family intimacy and deepening of relationships across the generations and distances than is possible at loud, expensive parties and b) correlates with the traditional, pre-modern goal of b’nei mitzvah–learning how to live a mitzvah-centered, rather than a self-centered life wherein the cultivation of a healthy self able to shift from the child’s point of view (take care of me, what did you bring me) to a young adult point of view (hmm, what do others around me feel and need, how can I be helpful and teach Torah in ways meaningful to the lives of those who will be present, rather than saying what Torah means to me). How many types of mitzvahs does the child and family know? The ability to know how to live through a Jewish lens in every minute is a beautiful way to prepare for b’nei mitzvah. Test yourself, check out Mitzvah Cards on Amazon, these are expressed through the lens of spirituality and meaning and have been vetted by rabbis from every denomination.

Many destinations can afford family closeness, opportunities to learn about distant Jewish communities and diverse Jewish cultures, there may also be ways to be helpful. Upon returning, it is lovely for those who are synagogue members to have an aliyah to the Torah and be blessed by that community, or by sharing about their family bar/bat mitzvah in a day school or congregational or folkshuln, etc. sharing circle.
When a community is real, nurturing and sustaining for young persons and their family then they may prefer local b’nei mitzvah because they want “all of the characters in the village” of their life to be present; for some those connections are and aren’t synagogue-based and new approaches can be quite useful. Lots of ideas for more meaningful b’nei mitzvah are in books I’ve written based on over a decade of research: Make Your Own Bar/Bat Mitzvah: A Personal Approach to Creating a Meaningful Rite of Passage (Jossey-Bass) and Living Jewish Life Cycle: How to Create Meaningful Rites of Passage at Every Stage of Life (Jewish Lights Publishing). Bmitzvah.org provides many on-line resources, as well.
Having facilitated many “destination” b’nei mitzvah that are grounded in joyful, deep Jewish learning experiences, it is clear, it’s not the destination, its the developmental learning processes we create leading up to them that matter most.

You automatically *become* a bar or bat mitzvah (son or daughter of the commandments), by dint of your age. You don’t *have* one. The entire point of putting your kid up on the bimah to read out of the Torah is to give him or her a first chance to *lead the congregation*. And when your child is in front of the congregation reading out of the Torah for the first time, it is not your child’s “bar mitzvah” service. It is a congregational Shabbat service. If you aren’t in your own synagogue at a congregational Shabbat service with the community with whom you and your child share your Jewish lives, then there is absolutely *no* point.

There is one destination indicated for any bar/bat mitzvah ceremony to be meaningful, and that destination should a spiritually Jewish destination. The central part of the actual liturgy is that this bar mitzvah moment is the first time for the child to take on adult responsibilities as symbolized by the celebrant’s reading a portion from the torah. Anything else is literally fluff. These soires and destination deals are more like the sugar to make the medicine go down, but the Judaism is not medicine, and when extensive planning for the “occasion” overcomes this real occasion, the bar mitzvah misses the mark.

Another for the rich and the wanna be rich to show off, and get their kids primed for spending and competing. Vulgar, for the most part.

Reminds me of old joke. Family decides to do something extraordinary for their son’s Bar Mitzvah. They decide to do a safari for Bar Mitzvah, as they are riding on elephants, guide tells them to stop, they ask why. He says another Bar Mitzvah is coming the other way.

And sometimes the beach is right there very very close to the synagogue and just as we do Shabbat on the Beach as a regular synagogue shabbat service every friday at 6pm during the summer and hundreds of families partake in a family service, mitzvah projects, and have shabbat meals there, it is a REGULAR synagogue observance in addition to our synagogue services (later that evening inthe sanctuary and the major shabbat service saturday morning) in the synagogue building, communal not private. So the beach is not necessarily alien to or a destination away from the synagogue itself. Sometimes then (without an overly general brush stroke of condemnation) one can celebrate shabbat and becoming a Bar/Bat mitzvah at a beach which is also the synagogue’s home.

Guest says:

“And I think a bat mitzvah
should be about what you like” – this quotation horrifies me. That is definitely
NOT what Bat Mitzvah is about. Poor Bat Mitzvah has been misguided probably by
misguided parents. Bat Mitzvah is about learning responsibility for
one’s actions and thinking about the
lives of others/the community, it’s
pondering why we’re here on earth in
this particular body at this time, and it’s about developing a relationship with the Almghty
who created us by learning His guidebook (the Torah) and observing its recommendations for a good life (Mitzvot). It doesn’t mean that
it shouldn’t be a pleasant process,
it’s just that going on a hike or to
the beach doesn’t necessarily bring
one to these realizations. Doing “what you like” can be celebrated on any
birthday. Attaining the age of 12 for a girl and 13 for a boy is the catalyst
for deeper reflection about life and our place in it. Our society has twisted
the significance of Bat/Bar Mitzvah so that it no longer bears any resemblance to
its original intent. Hearing that someone’s Bar Mitzvah has a soccer theme makes me want to
weep in pain.

disqus_LZTLg4CySW says:

I wonder what would have happened if Jordan’s parents had taken a step back and reflected on WHY Hebrew school didn’t excite Jordan and WHY she didn’t feel the connection instead of throwing in the towel and going for a gimmicky bat mitzvah solution? Maybe it would have caused them to critically evaluate the quality of the entire Jewish experience their children were experiencing. Maybe they might have thought of creative, meaningful and fun ways to bring Judaism into their home. Maybe they would have thought of interesting ways to create lasting connections to their Jewish community. Maybe they would have tried to infuse Jordan’s youth with the spirit of Tikkun Olam. Or maybe they would have worked with the hebrew school to figure out how to engage their Jewish youth more effectively and make improvements. But no worries here; Jordan got to hike at Lake Tahoe for her bat mitzvah, fulfilled her mission of having a bat mitzvah that was about what she likes, and now she has a skype buddy. Surely the recipe for Jewish continuity.

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Bar Mitzvahs on the Beach

Destination bar and bat mitzvahs take Jewish ceremonies to exotic locations—far from the synagogue back home

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