The bar mitzvah celebrated by the son and nephew of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel in Jerusalem in May shines a light on a trend that has been going on for quite a few years now, but has recently been receiving a different and more colorful character – Diaspora Jews celebrating their children's coming of age in Israel.
Anyone passing by the Western Wall courtyard on Mondays and Thursdays can't help but notice the bar mitzvah festivities held for children of the Diaspora. "In the summertime, which is considered high season, between June and August, 200-300 children can read from the Torah on the designated days," Kotel Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch said. "A significant part of them comes from abroad. We're talking about an increase of hundreds, and even thousands of percentages higher than previous years," the rabbi estimated.
The industry that accompanies the celebrations is thriving. It's not just hotels, and even some popular Israeli singers, who make a big profit off the business. In the United States, and other countries as well, big and small agencies, as well as travel agencies owned by Jews, offer bar mitzvah packages. One of the most prominent is Israel Discovery Tours (IDT), which is operated by tour guide Ben Ami Geller and his partner Ilene Wallerstein of Chicago, who he met during a bat mitzvah tour with her daughter. Sources from the industry say that in many instances, flying dozens of guests to Israel can be cheaper than celebrating the occasion at a luxurious venue in Manhattan or Beverly Hills.
Know your Judaism
A large chunk of those that come to hold bar mitzvahs in Israel are Conservative or Reform Jews. "In many Conservative communities in the US, the bar mitzvah trip has become part of the agenda of 'knowing your Judaism'," said Ben Ami Geller, 74, one of the genre's pioneers. "Most of them don't know what Judaism is. A lot of times the grandparents finance the trip because they realize what people in Israel don't understand – that we lose US Jewry by the age of 35, and they view the bar mitzvah trips as a kind of recharge of Jewish identity. I started out in 1960 with the Orthodox public, and over the years I learned that Judaism in American and around the world is moving towards the Conservative and Reform streams, and I began working with these communities."
Some families can spend almost a year working on the bar mitzvah project. "This is an ongoing education process, and the families prepare themselves for their visit to Israel," said Yaacov Fried, who, together with his partner Diane Brody, organized the Emanuel family's bar mitzvah tour. "In recent years the desire to make the visit to Israel a part of Jewish life has grown stronger in the Reform and Conservative communities. The memory of the Holocaust and the older generation are fading. Many in the community have realized that the bar-bat mitzvah is a celebration, but does not leave a mark of Jewish consciousness. But a bar mitzvah trip with the family, often with three generations, makes up the experience."
Fried and Brody estimate that the cost of such a trip can range from $5,000 to 10,000 per person, depending on the type of event and the number of participants. But it seems in many cases, a bar-bat mitzvah trip to Israel is still cheaper that celebrating abroad. According to Nava Rosenboim, an events coordinator who specializes in the religious and traditional public, economic considerations play a role in prompting Jews from France, England and South America to hold the event in Israel. Meanwhile in Los Angeles and New York, wealthy Jewish families compete over who holds the most glamorous event and celebrating in Israel serves as a convenient solution for many.
Holding a high-end kosher event in London or Paris, Rosenboim explains, can cost between three and six times more than the price of such a celebration in Israel, since, in the absence of kosher event halls, families are forced to hire the hall and order the food separately. According to Eilat Shomroni, incoming tourism director of Fattal hotels, "The recession does not affect the scope of the trend, which is on the rise, but it affects the size of the groups." She said that while in the past, groups of up to 400 people would arrive for a bar or bat mitzvah, now, the larger groups contain between 50 – 150 people.
Wealthy families can spend over $100,000
Tsafrir Ginsberg, CEO of the Cassiopeia events hall in Herzliya notes a difference in Israeli bar mitzvahs and those held by Diaspora Jews. "In an Israeli bar mitzvah the parents are at the center. It is their celebration. The child has a mini-event in a separate part of the hall, with 30-40 friends and lots of videogames. In bar mitzvahs from abroad, the child is at the center, a true guest of honor. He is received with shofars at the entrance to the hall, he takes part in a dance and song, and there is also a large cake for him to cut."
Bar mitzvah tourists can be divided into three main groups: The middle class, mainly from Reform and Conservative communities in the US, who consider the bar mitzvah a kind of journey to one's toots, and come in relatively small groups via local agencies. These tourists tend to stay in Israel for 10 days to two weeks, travel through the country accompanied by expert tour guides, and will spend between $25,000 and $40,000.
The second group is made up of traditional Jews and people with some kind of connection to Israel – Israelis living abroad with family back home, Jews of North African descent, mainly from France, and traditional and religious Jews from the US, England and France. These tourists come in larger groups, hold an Orthodox bar mitzvah, spend most of their time in Jerusalem, read from the Torah at the Western Wall, and will have brunch in a Jerusalem hotel, sometimes instead of the bar mitzvah meal. These tourists spend between $30,000 and $100,000.
The third group is the richest, and includes members of the Syrian Jewish community in New York, and members of the Sephardic community in Mexico, Panama and other South American countries. They come in masses – 100 – 200 people per group, and use Israeli event planning services, in hopes of impressing their friends, who have already seen it all. These events include performances by popular Israeli signers such as Sarit Hadad, Kobi Peretz and Svika Pick and the families will spend $100,000 and up.
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