Last December, on the beaches of the Playacar Palace Resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, Henry Goldberg became a bar mitzvah. The Potomac, Md., native stood barefoot on the sand, wearing a new tallit and chanting his haftorah as the waves of the Caribbean Sea crashed behind him. After a small reception, Goldberg celebrated his transition to Jewish adulthood by jumping into the hotel pool.
“At first I wanted to have my bar mitzvah in Asia, ‘cause I like everything Asia,” he told me. “But Mexico was fun, too. And I wasn’t really nervous or anything because I was only there with my family and friends.”
For her bat mitzvah, 13-year old Jordan Berkovitz decided she wanted to mark the occasion by hiking the trails of Lake Tahoe. At the service in August 2012, Jordan’s 13 guests sat in camping chairs and took turns reading aloud passages about nature and God. When Jordan looked out from her makeshift pew, she saw acres of trees and the glittering waters of Emerald Bay. “A lot of my friends are like, ‘It’s so cool to dance and have this big party,’ ” she said later, reflecting on the typical parties many of her peers had back home in Cleveland. “But I like hiking and camping. And I think a bat mitzvah should be about what you like.”
Henry and Jordan are part of a growing trend of families choosing “destination” bar and bat mitzvahs, celebrating outside their synagogues and home communities. While Israel remains the original setting for a destination bar mitzvah, teenagers today have the choice of having their ceremonies in places as diverse as a Costa Rican rainforest and a ski slope in Aspen. “You don’t need a synagogue to feel God’s presence,” said Glenn Sherman, a Conservative cantor who performs about 20 destination bar mitzvahs a year.
But not everyone sees these destination bar mitzvahs as purely spiritual occasions. “I think it makes it more of a vacation than a special event,” said Matt Axelrod, a cantor and author of Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide. “It takes the Judaism out of the center of it.” But simply stating displeasure with destination bar mitzvahs is no longer enough, admits Rabbi Bradley Solmsen, director of Youth Engagement for the Union for Reform Judaism. If congregations are unhappy with the trend, they need to change. “I think the advent of destination bar mitzvahs shows that people are looking for more meaningful experiences,” Solmsen said. “We need to pay attention to this trend.”
The growth in destination bar mitzvahs has followed the growth in another popular trend: “Destination bar mitzvahs are along the same idea of the destination weddings,” said Ellen Paderson, the owner of Bar Mitzvah Vacations, a travel agency that helps plans alternative bar mitzvah experiences. And destination weddings now include about 25 percent of all American weddings today. In both cases, families are celebrating important life events and the celebrants want to spend longer, quality time with their families.
Adding to the popularity of the destination bar mitzvahs is the growing number of families who are unaffiliated with any synagogue and have nowhere to go when their children turn 13. “Synagogue membership is down nationally, but the idea of a bar and bat mitzvah is something that families still cling to,” said Rabbi Jamie Korngold, owner of Adventure Rabbi, a Boulder, Colo.-based program that provides destination bar mitzvah opportunities. “People are looking for new models to hold onto.” Many destination bar mitzvah programs offer abbreviated study programs for unaffiliated students who have little or no previous Jewish education.
Most Jewish educators agree that the best outcome of a bar mitzvah experience is that the child walks away with a positive Jewish experience and looks to become more engaged in the community. But some do not agree that destination bar mitzvahs are the best way to create this connection. “The essence of a bar mitzvah is about becoming part of a community,” said Solmsen. “Destination bar mitzvahs can take you away from that community.”
Unfortunately, however, the Reform synagogue where Jordan Berkovitz attended Hebrew school every Sunday didn’t excite her. “Every time Sunday rolled around, I was like, ‘Oh here we go again,’ ” her mother Joanne recalled. And when it came time for early bat mitzvah prep classes, “Jordan kept saying, ‘I don’t want to go.’ There just wasn’t that connection.”
Joanne and her husband David had both grown up traditionally; Joanne had a bat mitzvah at her synagogue, David had his bar mitzvah in Israel. But, after a few of these Sunday morning struggles, they realized this formula wasn’t resonating with their daughter. When they thought about what becoming bat mitzvah meant, they realized it didn’t necessarily have to do with a synagogue. “For me, becoming a bar mitzvah means transitioning from a child to an adult,” said David. “It means transitioning spiritually and having more of a connection with God.”
So, the Berkovitzes decided to throw away their notion of a “traditional” bar mitzvah service and began searching online for alternatives. That’s where they found the Adventure Rabbi program, which promised to personalize their daughter’s bat mitzvah experience. “Our philosophy is: How can we take something this kid loves, whether its skiing or hiking or paddling, and how can we create a bat mitzvah experience in this space that’s sacred to them?” said Rabbi Evon Yakar, who heads Adventure Rabbi’s Distance Learning B’nai Mitzvah Program.
The idea of connecting Jordan’s passions with her bat mitzvah preparation appealed to the Berkovitzes. They signed on. Every month for a year, Jordan met via Skype with Yakar. For an hour they discussed Jewish philosophy: what it means to be a Jewish adult, and what that responsibility entails. Jordan also met with a Hebrew tutor every week to go over the bat mitzvah service she’d lead in Lake Tahoe.
When Jordan arrived in Lake Tahoe with her family and friends, she felt much more connected to her religion, she said. Standing in a clearing just off a hiking trail, chanting the Ve’ahavta, Jordan experienced a sense of community and unity. “I got so much more out of it than if it were a normal bat mitzvah,” she said. “It was really spiritual and I felt closer to God because of it.” Today, Jordan continues to have monthly sessions with Yakar about Jewish learning and thought.
Uninspiring religious education is not the only reason congregants are fleeing the bimah-based bar mitzvah service. Many are also trying to escape the consumerism surrounding traditional bar mitzvah celebrations; even though a destination bar mitzvah isn’t cheap, because it’s usually smaller in scale, it can cost far less than a large ceremony at home. It is not a coincidence that the destination bar mitzvah idea started circulating right around the point that bar mitzvah parties began ballooning into $100,000, 300-person Academy-Awards-style affairs. Sometimes the meaning of the event was overshadowed by the planning of the celebrations.
Becca Goldberg experienced this phenomenon seven years ago when her oldest child, Lucy, got bat mitzvahed. “We got the date three years before the event, and I spent two years organizing and planning,” she said. “We looked at 15 or 20 different ballrooms, we had a party planner, a hospitality suite, a Sunday brunch, a Shabbat dinner. It was like planning a wedding.” Two years later, when her daughter stood in front of 250 guests at the Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington, D.C., chanting her haftorah, Goldberg found herself crying. “I thought, Oh my God, what was I thinking? I was so busy planning [the party] that I’d forgotten what this was all about.”
For her son Henry’s bar mitzvah, Goldberg pledged she would do things differently. She wanted the celebration to be simpler and more family-centered. She thought about having the bar mitzvah in Israel, but it was too hard financially and logistically for her extended family to attend. “We really wanted all our family together for the event,” she said.
Goldberg’s friend knew of a family who had had a bar mitzvah in Puerto Rico. Inspired, Goldberg started looking online for other exotic locations to host a service. Searching under “destination bar mitzvah,” Goldberg found Sherman, the Conservative cantor—and a reasonably priced all-inclusive resort in Mexico at the same time.
“I was concerned initially about going to Mexico for a bar mitzvah,” Goldberg admitted. “I worried, where’s the significance in it?”
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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