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September 27, 2007

Party planning in the Holy Land is just a mouse click away

http://www.jewishjournal.com/bar_and_bat_mitzvahs/article/party_planning_in_the_holy_land_is_just_a_mouse_click_away_20070928

The Israeli Government Bar Mitzvah Web site

The Israeli Government Bar Mitzvah Web site

Planning a bar mitzvah in Israel? The Israeli Ministry of Tourism has just posted a Web site to help you get started: www.bar-mitzvah.org.il. For party purposes, the site is Jerusalem-centric, but it does offer links to fun things to do outside the city.

Considering the daunting task of holding a rite of passage and feeding your guests thousands of miles from home, the site does a good job of letting you know that there are places willing to host you, including the Bible Lands Museum and the Tower of David. While the site provides contact information, including Web sites and phone numbers for some of the more popular Jerusalem venues (though not much information on making a bar mitzvah outside that city), it doesn't offer many specifics, so write up a checklist before you call or e-mail particular places. Some of your questions might include capacity, price per head, other fees and, if it is important to you or your guests, the specific kosher certification of the venue, since there are many throughout Israel.

The site also provides name of tour operators around the country who can handle the bookings for you -- helpful, but you'll want to ask friends who they used, or at least ask the tour operators to refer you to people who used their services. One family who used a widely known operator was disappointed by his refusal to help them secure a bar mitzvah program on Masada -- he claimed that a mountain where people committed suicide didn't seem right for a bar mitzvah celebration. When speaking with operators, keep in mind whose celebration it is and stand your ground, within reason.

The site does a decent job of listing the most popular locations in Jerusalem for services and parties -- but if you're on a budget, you may need to do some additional research. For example, while the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, listed on the new Web site, can help you plan a bar mitzvah at the Western Wall, a cheaper option -- especially if you've only got a small group -- is to head down to the Wall early on the day of the bar mitzvah and stake your claim to a table and Torah, and then head up to the Jewish Quarter for breakfast at one of several cafés. For names of places to eat, some of which will take reservations, access www.myrova.com.

If you've never been to Israel before, or not for a while, use the site's excellent MP3- and PC-based tours of Jerusalem to get a feel for the city. The virtual tour is especially good. At the very least, you'll get your bearings a bit faster after you arrive and before you start fielding calls from the guests about the program.

You might be surprised to see that the site includes a link to Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial, for a bar mitzvah celebration. The synagogue at the complex is beautiful, filled with Torah arks rescued after the Holocaust. Food at Yad Vashem is delicious, and if you think it's an odd choice for a celebration, consider this: Yad Vashem does not charge admission, so any money you spend there -- on catering, or at the gift shop, which offers some lovely favors for guests -- offsets costs of this sacred memorial to the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust.

The Web site's builders certainly know kids, and they've included links to attractions such as zip-lines, kayaks and paintball around the country. Be sure to access the "useful information" link, which includes important data such as exchange rates, weather and bus and rail information. (On a recent trip to Israel, though, online schedules for the trains between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv proved unreliable, so you may want to call instead.)

While the hotel portion of the site has almost a dozen choices, it leaves out a couple of upscale ones, including the King David and the David Citadel, and some less expensive but lovely choices, including the new Prima Royale and A Little House in Baka.

Individual tour guides can also help plan a bar mitzvah -- ask friends if they've used a guide for a trip who they'd recommend. For maximum idea input, you can use the new site as a starting point while working with a guide. Lee Glassman, a veteran guide, says "anything that will encourage folks to come, visit and participate in the only country on earth that was designed, founded and built just for them sounds good to me."

Since the site is short on bat mitzvah specifics, you might want to consult a new touring company, Tzofiah Tours, which offers ample assistance to families planning a trip for a bat mitzvah. Estie Hershkovits, one of the company's partners, says they are a specialized tour company focusing on women and education. The guides are all women with experience in formal and informal education, as well as mothers who know what kids enjoy.

"For a bat mitzvah, we combine these interests by studying with the bat mitzvah girl before the trip about a topic of her choice, often connected to Israel," Hershkovits says. "When she arrives, if she likes, she can choose to present a short skit, or song, or game, or activity at the site itself and share her learning experience with all of her guests."

For more information, visit Prima Royale or A Little House in Baka.

Francesca Lunzer Kritz is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md.

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