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Destination Bar Mitzvah

From a traditional service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, to a bar mitzvah experience high atop a ski mountain in Utah, today’s families are finding meaningful ways to share the experience of transitioning to Jewish adulthood by reciting their Haftorah in a setting they’ll never forget.

A Bar Mitzvah in the Holy Land
For Sharon and Craig Solar, the decision to have their son Steven’s bar mitzvah in Israel was an important one for their family. “We made the trip so that the kids could be more intimate with the Jewish state, and felt Steven’s bar mitzvah year seemed like a perfect time to make the journey,” says his mom Sharon. Last fall, Steven had a ceremony at the family’s local temple where they held a kiddush luncheon for family and friends. That night, the Solars hosted a race car and bowling party at Grand Prix NY in Northern Westchester. And this past February, Steven got the chance to have a second bar mitzvah in Israel where he recited his Haftorah on top of Masada. “It’s very hard to express how amazing it was to stand on such an ancient land and have your son sing from the Torah after climbing Masada,” Sharon recalls.

Solar adds that her son Steven liked the idea very much and opted for the smaller party to make the bar mitzvah party and trip combination possible. “We were very excited leading up to the trip and now that we’ve had the chance to visit Israel, we were amazed by the beauty experienced through the warm people, the gorgeous scenery, mountains, farms, orchards (oranges, olives, almonds, kiwi, dates) history, food and the sheer pride that the Israelis share in all the stories that they tell.”

Andrea Weiss from Edgemont agrees that a bar mitzvah in Israel was definitely the way to go for their youngest son, Ian, whose two older brothers celebrated their bar mitzvahs the traditional way. “I felt like we had to do the big shindig with all the relatives once, but I wanted to do something a little bit different and even though Ian is my youngest, I thought he was old enough to appreciate touring Israel and having his bar mitzvah on top of Masada.” Weiss adds that she did agree to throw a smaller party for Ian’s friends that took place closer to his actual birthday.

As she began investigating options for the service in Israel, Weiss says they could have held the ceremony at the southern end of the Western Wall in Jerusalem where men and women could pray together, or at the top of Masada. Because of the unpredictability of the weather during that time of year, she says they chose Masada. Andrea’s five family members participated in the service along with a former au pair who now resides in Israel. What made the experience even more special was that their tour guide from Mabat Platinum, who was involved in training guides for Birthright trips, invited a group to celebrate with the Weiss family as well. She says, “There was a big Birthright trip on top of the mountain and toward the tail end of Ian’s service we had them come in and participate in the ceremony and it really made it nice and festive.”

Adventure Bar Mitzvahs
For families who aren’t affiliated with a synagogue, or others who would like to host a more intimate and meaningful ceremony for their child away from home, just pay a visit to the Adventure Rabbi and the b’nai mitzvah of your child’s dreams could be just a flight away. Recently named by The Jewish Forward as one of the most inspiring rabbis of the year, Rabbi Jamie Korngold is also known as the Adventure Rabbi. Originally from Canada, Korngold currently resides in Boulder, Colo. She works closely with Rabbi Evon Yakar, who lives in Lake Tahoe and takes students through a 10-month Torah study process via Skype.

When it comes time for the child’s b’nai mitzvah, Rabbi Jamie works closely with the family to select a location that holds true meaning for all of them. While Boulder and Lake Tahoe are two scenic destinations you can select for your ceremony, the rabbis are also available to officiate at the destination of your choice. This year, the Adventure Rabbis’ travels will take them to Whistler, Canada; Jerusalem, Israel; Park City, Utah; Calgary, Canada; Danville, Calif.; Boston, Mass.; Fairfax, Va.; Rancho Mirage, Calif.; San Juan Islands; Short Hills, N.J.; and Telluride Colo., among others.

About a year ago, Korngold presided over a ceremony for the Schors, a family from Croton-on-Hudson who chose to have their son Leo’s bar mitzvah on top of a ski slope in Alta, Utah. After Leo recited his Haftorah, the Schors spent the rest of the day skiing and celebrating with their family and close friends.

“I had a kid who really was just not cut for the cloth of traditional Hebrew School but he’s a skier,” says his mom Debra Schor. “This made it relevant and significant for him and made it so that he was open to receiving the Jewish education that I wanted him to have.”

Schor adds that her in-laws, who couldn’t make it to the mountain, were still able to be part of the ceremony via Skype. “Everybody who came to our bar mitzvah felt engaged and felt a part of the experience. Everyone was in awe of the situation and they felt it was perfect,” she says.

Bar Mitzvahs for Special Needs Students
For children with special needs, a destination b’nai mitzvah could be a great way for them to pursue their journey to adulthood on their own terms. Cantor Eric Contzius from New Rochelle, N.Y. has presided over numerous ceremonies for special needs children and says that not every synagogue is “equipped to deal with special needs families.”

Contzius will be participating in a bar mitzvah this May where the student will be writing the prayers himself and turning it into a Powerpoint. “We are going to do everything virtually. One family member is a poet and they wrote a book about creation and we will be incorporating that into the ceremony,” Contzius says.

“When you are dealing with kids who are on the spectrum, it’s important to know where the child is psychologically so you can meet the kid where they are, instead of where the adults are,” says Contzius, who recalled working with one autistic student who responded really well to an unconventional service where he went to a Jewish camp, climbed the alpine tower and built a ritual around that. “It’s fine to have a destination, but the destination has to serve a purpose greater than the destination itself. Otherwise why do it?“

“I think the more salient question is: how can we augment the ritual so that it has meaning for a kid so that they don’t think it was a trial by fire, but it was a real Jewish ritual that met them where they are,” says Contzius. The real meaning behind becoming a bar mitzvah is really about marking a new stage of life.”

Beth Feldman is a Westchester-based freelance writer who hopes to hold a destination bar mitzvah soon.