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