Given the negative press about over-the-top b'nai mitzvah celebrations, many families are rethinking the black-tie or other extravaganza, giving preference to true expressions of mitzvot. High on the list of alternatives is a trip to Israel, where the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony and celebration dinner can take place along with an enlightening tour for the celebrant with family and friends.
To begin planning a bar/bat mitzvah in Israel, look to print ads and Internet sites from tour operators to generate options. Many factors will guide your choice: how many people are in your personal group; when and for how long you wish to go; how private you want to be; and if anyone in your group has special needs. You can choose a standard package or make customized arrangements.
Standard tours have set departure dates, usually coinciding with school vacations in summer, December and February. They include travel on air-conditioned motor coaches, lodging at first-class or luxury hotels and many meals, highlighted by daily Israeli breakfast buffets with enough food for an entire day.
Your tour might be a single bus or one of several, with families from all over the country. Most operators try to arrange bus groups according to the ages of the b'nai mitzvah's siblings, often resulting in bonding that leads to long-term friendships. Some tours offer a free trip for the celebrant depending on how many are in the party.
Since the ceremony is central to this trip, tour programs may provide a rabbi or cantor to rehearse with the b'nai mitzvah and/or conduct the services at one of several religious sites.
Monday or Thursday morning ceremonies at Masada are popular because participants can reach the top by cable car. However, some tours arrange for services at sites in Jerusalem including the Western Wall plaza and the Reform Beit Shmuel with its spectacular rooftop view. In the North, one of Safed's historic synagogues is a special site.
Following the services, some programs include a Kiddush or a lunch. A gala evening party usually takes place at a hotel or restaurant. Live music, dancing, candle-lighting ceremonies, gourmet dinner, entertainment, gifts for the b'nai mitzvah and certificates from the Israeli government are among the features.
Sightseeing with fully licensed, English-speaking guides allows you to take in Israel's most impressive sites. The specifics vary from one company to another, but all include youth-friendly activities, such as kayaking, camel rides, swimming, tree planting, jeep tours, archaeological digs, boat rides, cave crawls and visits to museums that bring to life the history of the Jewish people and the land of Israel. The following are glimpses into some tours:
- Ayelet Tours Ltd. includes exploration of the tunnels under Jerusalem's Old City, jeep tours in the Golan and an archaeological dig. Their longer itineraries include a visit to Eilat with a cruise on the Red Sea, a day tour of Petra and a return flight to Tel Aviv. On Ayelet's Hadassah missions, the bar/bat mitzvah may take place in the Chagall-windowed chapel at the Hadassah Hospital.
- Emunah of America, a religious Zionist organization, operates an annual family b'nai mitzvah mission in August and year-round custom-planned trips. Opportunities to share the simcha with Israeli children-at-risk in Emunah's Residential Children's Homes are special mitzvot. Beyond outdoor activities, Scholars-in-Residence add a spiritual element to the program at appropriate times.
- Israel Travel Advisory Services, LLC, running b'nai mitzvah tours since 1970, sends the family a CD with the Torah readings before the trip and also has a rehearsal in Israel with a rabbi or cantor. For the tour, they select specially trained, licensed, professional guides with a unique ability to communicate with everyone from the youngest children to seniors. Their in-depth knowledge runs the gamut of Israel-related subjects, making trips exciting and informative. Request the descriptive DVD.
- Tova Gilead, Inc., specializes in small, upscale and unique tours with no more than 35 people on a bus, or customized private tours for individual families. Catering to three-generation b'nai mitzvah families, the former Israeli tour guide arranges programs involving all of them in the outdoor fun and the rite of passage. Following services at Masada or the Southern Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem, the rabbi presents each child with Tova's special gifts: A Torah with the name of the bar/ bat mitzvah child, the location of the service and the Hebrew calendar year embroidered on the cover, a tallit and kippah for the boys, a challah cover for the girls and a bar or bat mitzvah coin minted by the Israel government.
- Marlene Ritter of Israel Tour Connection describes her company's group and individual b'nai mitzvah tours as combined fun and learning experiences, involving all the senses. As families hike, kayak and swim, they learn about the country. Weather-permitting, the youngsters climb up to Masada for the ceremony. Ritter says the kids come home knowing the country, why it's there and also knowing who they are. One example: at the trip's end, a child of an interfaith marriage asked to wear a mezuzah.
- Margaret Morse Tours, a major force in Israel travel, has a similar story. One boy on a b'nai mitzvah trip did not wish to take part in the service, but his parents still bought an appropriate outfit along for him. After a few days of touring, when the service took place, without pressure, he dressed and joined the ceremony.
Today he is a man!
For more information,
Ayelet Tours, Ltd., www.ayelet.com, (800) 237-1517
Emunah, www.emunah.org, (800) 368-6440
Israel Travel Advisory Services, www.itastours.com, (800) 326-4827
Tova Gilead, Inc., www.tovagilead.com, (800) 242-8682
Israel Tour Connection, www.israeltour.com, (800) 247-7235
Margaret Morse Tours, www.margaretmorsetours.com, (800) 327-3191
Judith Broder Sellner, a New York-based freelance writer, specializes in Jewish lifestyle subjects, with an emphasis on Israel.