By: Hilary Weissman
The moment I first heard that there was such a thing as a “destination Bar or Bat mitzvah”, I wasn’t that surprised, just a little nauseous. The images of private jets and lots of chattering 13-year-olds on an all expenses paid trip to the Caribbean to celebrate turning another year older could potentially taint the sanctity of the generations of tradition of being called to the bima.
You’ll have to excuse my weekend marathon of Bravo TV for making me wonder aloud (or at least in text) whether ‘Real Housewife’ Jill Zarin, a proud Jewish mother who divulged the legendary secrets kept by such a creature in her titular book collaboration with her sister and late mother, would choose to let her children and family experience the newest trend at their own coming of age ceremonies. She and the other Manhattan mavens seem to stereotypically flock to St. Bart’s in the winter months, which is the pre-cursor to becoming a “snow bird” in Boca after retirement, and my first reaction in hearing about the vacation celebrations of Jewish young man and womanhood was to think that this could be the “plot” line of the hit reality show in about ten years (Zarin has a two-year-old daughter).
The more I read about these destination bar and bat mitzvot however, the more I warmed up to the idea of sun, surf and singing “sim shalom”. Many of the Caribbean locations in St. Thomas, Aruba, and Costa Rica featured on travel sites like barmitzvahvacations.com boast unique synagogues with rich history of persevering through Diaspora and discrimination and preserving the ornately decorated temples and long-standing customs. Many also offer opportunities for the bar and bat mitzvah young men and women to perform mitzvot in the form of community service projects during their stay on the beautiful, yet often impoverished islands.
The families who have reviewed their destination celebrations cherished the memories they made, the time they spent with a more intimate group of their extended family, and the escape into a relaxed and focused observance of the milestone their children have reached. Spoiled cat-fights that one would see on MTV’s “My Super Sweet Sixteen,” concerning the outrageous guest list, revealing attire, and impossible demands such as celebrity appearances, expensive jewelry, and ostentatious vehicles, are visibly absent from the average destination bar or bat mitzvah.
At first glance the religious R&R might seem to be a ridiculous waste of money. But when the guest list is kept manageable, many of these trips advertise at a similar, if not lesser price than what many families end up spending on a lavish party, especially when all the decorations, menus, entertainment, and fashion choices are taken into consideration. These elements often do take the focus off what everyone gathered is there to celebrate, the young men and women’s presence at the Torah, reading from it and sharing with the congregation the lessons they have learned and how it will apply to their Jewish adult life.
So you may crave an extreme experience, like the alternative service hikes in Boulder, Colorado with the Adventure Rabbi, who “ uses Judaism and nature to teach Bar and Bat Mitzvah students the skills they need to be content, compassionate, confident and responsible teenagers.” Or, you can help your child touch their Jewish roots by becoming a bar or bat mitzvah in Israel, where they will truly know what it means to say “and next year, in Jerusalem.” No matter where your travels lead, across oceans or across the street to the closest shul, if you read a torah, do the horah, and ceremonially cut of the chalah, you will always have a lifetime of cooking, kvetching, and guilting ahead of you as a newly instated member of the Jewish adult tribe, and we couldn’t be more verklempt.