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Milestone Memories Made in Israel

Whether it's a Bar/Bat Mitzvah or a wedding, celebrating a life-cycle event in Israel intensifies the experience, as you sense it resonating with the past, present and future of the Jewish people.

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Whether it's a Bar/Bat Mitzvah or a wedding, celebrating a life-cycle event in Israel intensifies the experience, as you sense it resonating with the past, present and future of the Jewish people.

"It's the blend of the old and the new that speaks to everyone", says Rabbi Jeff Bearman, who has been conducting Bar and Bat Mitzvahs in Israel for 24 years. "Having the event at a historic place, as part of a tour of Israel, is an eye-opener for those with little background- a crash course in Jewish history. And for those who know more, it makes everything come alive", he adds. For a family, it strengthens everyone's ties both to each other and to Judaism and becomes something they will follow up at home.

 

The Western Wall is one of the best-loved venues for Bar Mitzvahs. The last remnant of the Second Temple of Jerusalem that was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, it is a symbol of both the loss of Jewish independence, and the hope of return fulfilled. It has become a unique symbol of Israel and the Jewish people, as we are reminded on this year's 40th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem.

 

In ancient times, the Torah was read in public on Mondays and Thursdays, because those were market days when gatherings in the towns would be at their peak, and of course on the Sabbath. And so, even now, Bar Mitzvahs are held on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The Western wall plaza, where people can be found praying day or night, comes especially alive on those days of the week. Hundreds of chanting voices rise up from dozens of small knots of men clustered around the Torah-reading tables on the men's side, encouraging the boys through their portions. Among some ethnic groups, the family brings their Bar Mitzvah boy to the Wall on the shoulders of fathers and uncles, or he will walk proudly up to the plaza between Mom and Dad, wearing a brand-new tallit and accompanied by musicians playing drums and horns and women ululating just as their ancestors did in antiquity. During the reading itself, the women's side; one fun moment is when the boy finishes his portion and is rewarded by a shower of candy from the women's section, symbolic of a sweet life. Sound a bit raucous? It can be, but for many it also represents unity with the Jewish people that will never be forgotten.

 

For those who want to be close to the Western Wall but have a more intimate service at which the entire family can stand together, the Southern Wall Archaeological Garden beneath the ancient Robinson's Arch, or the Southern Steps, is a good choice. Bearman says one of his personal favorite places is Robinson's Arch, which once supported steps ascended by millions of pilgrims to the Temple over the years. "Such a magnificent backdrop, it becomes the opportunity to help the Bar or Bat Mitzvah child understand the meaning of Temple, of attachment to a place and to the land that continues to this day." Bearman says. 

Masada is another venue of tremendous meaning for a bar or Bat Mitzvah. Every Monday and Thursday families and entire tour groups come to celebrate their children's special day. Most choose to ride the cable car to the top, but an intrepid few can always be seen climbing the Snake Path, the carefully cradled Torah scroll changing hands from time to time during the 45-minute ascent. Thus even the climb to the top of this last bastion of Jewish rebels in the Great Revolt against the Romans (and the sigh of relief at the top) can become a symbol of the challenging – but worthwhile-effort to live a Jewish life.

Masada, where the Jewish rebels took their own lives rather than submit to slavery in Roman captivity, is a symbol not without complexities. But even this fact can be part of the special meaning f the day, as family and friends gather to hear their youngster interpret the site and the occasion in the dvar Torah (word of Torah) they may give after their reading. “People are attracted by the story of the yearning for freedom Masada represents,” Bearman says. “We should concentrate on that part of the story, which is in any case a thrilling one, and the fact that we are today in a much different place historically.”


The ancient synagogue, which contains a room where the rebels kept their worn-out Torah scrolls, is a favorite venue for Masada Bar and Bat Mitzvahs – a few Torah scrolls are now kept in that same room for this purpose. Nothing how popular the ancient synagogue is for these ceremonies, Bearman advises Bar and Bat Mitzvah families that it can be reserved early in the morning before the “rush”. But there are other great sites on the plateau where time can also be booked, through the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, he points out, and some even offer more privacy than the synagogue.

After the ceremony, lunch and a swim at one of the Dead Sea resort hotels, only 20 minutes’ drive from Masada, or a meal in a Bedouin tent, complete with camel rides for all, makes a fun ending to the experience.


Some Bar and Bat Mitzvah families choose ancient synagogues elsewhere for their event. One favorite site is Katzrin, in the Golan Heights, where the synagogue is one of the Talmudic-era buildings that have been reconstructed and reminds today’s celebrants of the ancient Jewish families that once lived here and marked their own milestones in this very place.

Bearman recalls one special ceremony that took place at Genesisland, a site not far from Jerusalem overlooking the Judean Desert. “It was late afternoon, and the mystique of the desert at that hour became a tremendous part of the experience.” Part of the Genesisland experience is a dramatization of the story of Abraham and his servant Eliezer and camel rides. A biblical-style meal can be served in the Genesisland tent. At another unique site, the Neot Kedumim Biblical Landscape Reserve, nature and the Bible is the theme; the Torah reading and service are complemented by a tour, hands-on activities like the famous “mezuzah treasure hunt” and, of course, a celebration with food and music.


In addition to all the educational and family-togetherness advantages of making a Bar or Bat Mitzvah part of an Israel trip, there are some practical advantages. Informality – even extending to clothing for the event – means that no ties or high heels are necessary unless you want them. Many people even say that bringing the entire family to Israel, including grandparents and assorted aunts and uncles, is less costly than having the “big bash” at home, Bearman notes.


Tips for a successful Bar/Bat Mitzvah experience in Israel

Ask your travel planner at home to connect you with a tour operator who specializes in family trips around which to build your special event, including lots of hands-on, educational and fun things to do, like kayaking the Jordan River, horseback riding, hiking, and arts and crafts.


Plan in advance, so you can have your time slot at your chosen special venue and of course, prepare the appropriate Torah reading and dvar Torah. The rabbi you contact in Israel ahead of the event will be able to tell you which portion will be read in Israel on the date of your Bar/Bat Mitzvah, so your youngster can work on it at home with a tutor.


Study up on the site where you are planning on celebrating – the Western Wall, Masada, Katzrin, or other ancient sites. This can make for great family time.


The Ministry of Tourism can provide you with a list of service providers to help you plan your Bar/Bat Mitzvah in Israel. The ministry is also pleased to present each Bar/Bat Mitzvah child with a beautiful certificate signed by the Ministry of Tourism and if the ceremony takes place in Jerusalem, by the city’s mayor. If you are making your own arrangements, you can fill in the form for the certificate (with at least 21 days notice) online here.

 

The Ultimate Jewish Destination Wedding

 

Many elements of getting married in Israel share the same advantages of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah here. Rabbi Michael (Micky) Boyden says a wedding in Israel is great for people who want to get away from the Great Big Wedding. “To have something more intimate,” he says. “Plus, combining a wedding with a vacation means you have your family and friends gathered not for three to five hours together, but for several days during which you can build toward the wedding.”

Like a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, Boyden says a wedding in Israel is a meaningful way to identify with the country and the Bible quoting one of the beautiful verses recited under the wedding canopy: “The sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of bridegroom and bride…” (Jer. 33:10). And on the practical side, the weather in Israel is mild and sunny for much of the year; in fact, from May to October, you can have an outdoor event without worrying about being rained out.

In terms of venues, Boyden says he has officiated at one wedding at Masada, which he thought an unusual choice. More popular are kibbutzim and moshavim in various parts of the country that have built beautiful events venues – often with both indoor and outdoor options. Sites located along the coast are particularly in demand, especially some with Cliffside views of the sea where the ceremony can be geared for sunset, as the huge red ball of the sun dips slowly into the Mediterranean.

For those who want a historical backdrop, the Galilee synagogues that host Bar and Bat Mitzvahs are also favorites. Neot Kedumim, wonderful for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, is also a very special place for a wedding with a biblical-nature theme that includes walking to the wedding canopy down a path evoking the Bible’s most romantic book – the Song of Songs.


 

Tips for a successful wedding in Israel

 

As with Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, ask your travel planner at home to put you in touch with the organization and individuals in Israel that can help you plan all aspects of the trip and the wedding at a host of special venues – from a posh hotel to a desert hidaway.

The easiest way for people to get married in Israel is to have already had a civil wedding at home. People who want a non-Orthodox ceremony should bring their civil marriage certificate for the rabbi in Israel to see, and evidence of their Jewishness. Couples seeking an Orthodox wedding must register their intention to marry in Israel several months ahead with a rabbinate of the city where they want to hold the ceremony (this can be done with the help of the Jewish Life Information Center, www.itim.org.il). They will need to bring authorization of their Jewish status from their Orthodox rabbi at home.

In a non-Orthodox ceremony, the bride and groom can formulate their own ketubah and have it made in Israel by one of several talented calligraphy artists. The stunning illuminated marriage contract then becomes another unique keepsake of the special day.

 

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