Celebrating bar mitzvah with family trip to Israel Vacation: Trip helps families share with relatives the occasion of child's passage into adulthood.

Taking the Kids

November 10, 1996|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

Tell the Schnalls' story the next time anyone gripes about spending a vacation with the in-laws. "There are so few times in your life that you have a wonderful occasion," explained Rena Schnall, the mother of four from Queens, N.Y. "We wanted to share it."

The Schnalls wanted their relatives with them for their son David's bar mitzvah. (In the Jewish faith, the bar mitzvah -- for girls, the bat mitzvah -- ceremony marks the passage at age 13 from childhood to adulthood.) And they wanted to honor this important religious event with something more meaningful than a big party.

The solution: a trip to Israel that drew 40 members of the extended family, including three bar mitzvah-age cousins. The group, ranging in age from 3 to 77, toured for two weeks on a big bus.

Schnall reports it was the trip of their lives. They went kayaking on the Jordan River, rode donkeys, explored caves, stayed at a kibbutz and climbed Masada (the ancient mountain fortress) in between more traditional sightseeing forays in Israel's cities. There was a child-oriented program at Yad Vashem, the memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, guided by a survivor.

Adding even more meaning to the trip, the bar mitzvah ceremony for the three American cousins at the Western Wall of Jerusalem, Judaism's holiest site, included three underprivileged boys, recent immigrants to Israel.

"Our kids were hesitant to go to Israel at first because they worried that it wasn't safe," acknowledged Schnall. "I wanted to show the kids that we have to support Israel. We felt safe. I'd recommend the idea to anyone."

Despite continuing turmoil in the Middle East, spokesmen for American Jewish organizations and tour agencies report that bar mitzvah trips for families are growing in popularity. They receive the wholehearted support of Jewish leaders in the United States and the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.

American dollars are vital to the nation's $2 billion tourist industry, Israel's greatest source of foreign currency, said Geoffrey Weill, a spokesman for the Ministry of Tourism. To encourage the bar mitzvah business, some Jewish organizations and tour groups offer the child a free trip and arrange for an American rabbi to be on hand for the ceremony in Israel.

"There's an understanding that a visit to Israel can be very meaningful for young persons to help them form their Jewish identity," said Ari Goldberg, a spokesman for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the association that represents 2 million Jews across the country.

"We strongly encourage the idea," agreed Rabbi Raphael Butler, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, the national organization representing 750,000 observant Jews. "It's a chance to create a long-term impact from a temporal moment of celebration."

Although there are nearly 6 million Jews in the United States, many aren't affiliated with congregations. Some youngsters have not had the formal Hebrew education required here for a bar mitzvah, rabbis explain. On the other hand, participation in the simpler Israeli ceremony takes little preparation.

Those from intermarried homes -- more than half of Jews who marry each year marry someone of a different faith, according to the National Jewish Population Survey -- also are drawn to the concept.

Well-known bar mitzvah tour leader Tova Gilead, an Israeli who met her American husband when she was leading a bar mitzvah tour, recalled one intermarried family who brought along the Christian relatives. "It's a moving experience for anyone," she said.

Other families, she noted, simply prefer the trip to a lavish party. Costs for these tours, including airfare from New York, average $2,100 to $3,000 per person, less for children under 12.

Some lucky youngsters have generous grandparents who foot the bill. "If you're a Jew, you can't describe the feeling when you step off the plane in Israel," said Morton Margolis, a retired Beverly Hills executive who took his son's family to celebrate his grandson's bar mitzvah on top of Masada.

Schnall, meanwhile, knows that her next-oldest son is disappointed the entire family can't repeat the Israel tour for his coming bar mitzvah. "People are getting older," she sighs. "I don't know if we could ever do it again."

Tour operators

Many travel agents and Jewish organizations offer bar mitzvah/bat mitzvah family celebration tours to Israel over the summer and school-holiday periods. Prices typically drop during the Christmas holidays and rise in the spring. Ask about a free trip for the bar mitzvah child and substantial discounts for other children. The packages include tours, transportation, hotels and most meals. Prices start at $2,100 per person. Some families add side trips to Egypt, Jordan or elsewhere. The tour operators include:

The American Jewish Congress: (800) 221-4694

Tova Gilead Inc. Tours to Israel: (800) 242-TOVA

Aylet Tours (organizes trips for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism): (800) 237-1517

Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARTZA): (800) 223-7406

Emunah Women of America (geared for Orthodox Jews and provides arrangements to share the ceremony with an underprivileged child): (800) 368-6440

Pub Date: 11/10/96

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