Travel packages ease path to Holy Land bnai mitzvah

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Heading for the Holy Land for bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies is becoming far easier as travel agents fashion packages for American celebrants.

The travel operation has become highly organized and professionally run, affording participants an extraordinary, heightened religious and spiritual experience.

Parents planning a bar or bat mitzvah have many options in determining how best to conduct both the religious event itself and the joyous simchah that follows.

Several travel agents specialize in the bar-bat mitzvah package, in addition to other, more generalized tours of Israel they may offer. Most of the programs share basic commonalties, although each operator will add a particular nuance.

The concept of holding a bar or bat mitzvah in Israel took hold 27 years ago when Ceil Shar, a New Jersey housewife, organized the Israel Travel Advisory Service, ITAS, after the tragic death of her daughter, Audrey, who died in her 20s. In order to channel her grief into a positive exercise, Shar began sending boys and girls to Israel for the rite of passage, which marks, symbolically, their entrance into adulthood.

The first ceremony was held in Masada.

"That experience was designed to offer to Jewish children a sense of the continuity of their heritage," Shur said. "We held our first ceremony in the ancient synagogue on the very site where scrolls were discovered containing the prophecy: `The dry bones will come to life.'

"The b'nai mitzvah are fulfilling the prophecy of return by their very presence here at Masada."

Most other tour operators schedule the majority of their ceremonies at the now well-preserved ruins of the Herodian fortress of Masada overlooking the Dead Sea. The site has great historical significance: Here the Zealots held off the Roman tenth legion until their final act of mass suicide in 73 C.E. Here, too, soldiers of the Israel Defense Force are sworn in, each receiving a gun and a Bible.

The 12- and 13-year olds get neither, but the Israel Ministry of Tourism does reward each boy or girl with a handsome "I've been there" certificate, suitable for framing, which proclaims that the profound rite of passage took place atop Masada.

The resonance of history is one reason for the Masada option, which also enables families to join in an egalitarian mixed-gender happening. That is not possible at the Western Wall, for example, where the sexes are kept apart and where modern-day religious zealots may well stone those foolhardy enough to violate in any manner the tradition of gender apartheid.

In fact, because of this fundamental principle of separateness, most bar and bat mitzvah missions are undertaken by non-Orthodox families and are conducted, consequently, by non-Orthodox rabbis. Some rabbis accompany the family from the United States but are, more often, Israeli residents or citizens.

If there is a commonalty among the tour operators regarding sites, there is also a similarity in the all-encompassing programs each offers.

Hans Weinberg of the New York-based Synagogues Travel, for example, said, "We coordinate the air reservations, hotel accommodations and sightseeing itineraries. We organize the individual service conducted by our own (or your own) rabbi in Israel at the location of your choice. Whichever you prefer, we arrange the catering, photography and anything else you require."

While Weinberg and other tour operators, like Tova Gilead of New York, offer their clients a choice of sites, others, like ITAS and the Massachusetts-based Israel Discovery, will use only Masada.

Weinberg uses Masada and the sacred and sacrosanct Wall in Jerusalem, as well. He gets around the ban on male-female togetherness by using the Southern Wall, where egalitarian participation is unrestricted, instead of the better-known Western Wall. Weinberg said his groups reach it by entering the Old City through the Dung Gate rather than the Jaffa Gate.

Families have other choices as well. Gilead suggested they might even prefer her own favorites: the ridge of Mount Scopus and the sweeping view, looking west, of both the old and the new city; or the Haas Promenade of the adjacent Gabriel Sherover Promenade, "with the vast panorama, gazing eastward, of Mount Scopus, the Mount of Olives, the Temple Mount and the distant Judean Hills."

While families can certainly indicate particular preferences, they are more likely to accept the recommendations of the trained, licensed Israeli guides who are engaged to lead the tours and who know the religion, history, culture, archaeology and geography of their native land.

The carefully planned itineraries, the result of many years of exploring many routes and sites, are generally two weeks in length and cover the country from the Golan Heights in the North to Eilat at the top of the Red Sea at Israel's most southern point.

On a classical tour, the family would certainly visit Jerusalem, for example, in great depth — at least three full days of exploring the Old City and its renewed Jewish Quarter. In an off-beat program, the kids might spend a morning digging and excavating at an archaeological site such as the Tel at Maresha, an important town in biblical Judea.

Many families have found that a bar or bat mitzvah in Israel turns a child's rite of passage into an unsurpassed experience.