The auspiciously numbered 13 aliyot at our Birthright Israel group’s extremely truncated Shabbat Torah service this morning are not the sort of thing you see on every Birthright Israel trip, according to Yoav, our tour educator. While he knows a few other group leaders who offer participants the chance to be called up to the Torah and be named a bar or bat mitzvah, it’s not an official part of the program. “There’s nothing really formal in Halacha,” he told me, referring to Jewish law. Officially, one becomes a bar or bat mitzvah whether or not one is every called up to the Torah, and that it is only the bris, marriage, divorce, and funeral rites that are specified, formalized, and required in Jewish law.
Birthright Israel is ostensibly about connection to Israel. But is a religious service in a hotel basement really about Israel, even if the hotel is a couple miles from the Western Wall? We’re coming across another one of those tricky paradoxes of Israel, Zionism, and Birthright Israel itself. But Yoav was crystal-clear when I asked him what he felt the b’nai mitzvah ceremony is about: “Connection to Jewishness.”