Sammy Paykel reads from the Torah as his parents Neela and Joe Paykel (from left), Rabbi Alissa Forrest Miller and Cantor Leigh Korn look on.
Sammy Paykel reads from the Torah as his parents Neela and Joe Paykel (from left), Rabbi Alissa Forrest Miller and Cantor Leigh Korn look on.

Celebrating b’nai mitzvah in Israel becoming a tradition for Temple Isaiah families

Jenna Benenson and Sammy Paykel took a giant leap toward Jewish adulthood as they boarded a plane from San Francisco to Tel Aviv on June 11.

The two were among a group of nine youngsters from Lafayette’s Temple Isaiah heading to Israel to celebrate their b’nai mitzvah.

Buzz from the Reform synagogue’s inaugural mission in 2014 has had an obvious impact: the number of families doubled from four to eight, the number of participants jumped from 23 to 42, and the number of b’nai mitzvah tripled from three to nine.

“This wasn’t a trip, this wasn’t a vacation, this was a pilgrimage,” said Rabbi Alissa Forrest Miller, who organized the expedition and was joined by Cantor Leigh Korn. “We were going to connect to our homeland, our heritage, ourselves, and our Jewish community.”

And connect they did. Persevering through desert-hot temperatures and 12-hour days, Miller, Korn, and their flock of pilgrims traveled up, down and across the Jewish state for nine days. They visited modern cities like Tel Aviv and historical sites such as Caesarea, Jerusalem and Tsfat, and gained a new perspective on current events as they planted their feet firmly on the border overlooking Syria.

The most anticipated stops were Katzrin, a settlement in the Golan Heights, and Ein Gedi, an oasis near the Dead Sea — the two locations where the youngsters were presented with a tallit from their parents before being called up for their aliyot and chanting from the Torah.

For Jenna Benenson, 13, whose bat mitzvah took place on a Thursday in a Katzrin talmudic village, that’s when she realized, “I am a young woman.”

“To be chanting from the Torah in an ancient synagogue felt like we were moving forward,” she said. “I didn’t think it would be as meaningful as it actually was.”

Her parents, Heidi and Herb Benenson, witnessed the moment with pride and emotion.

“Any parent would be so proud to see their child up there,” said Herb, whose last visit to Israel was in 1979 as a 16-year-old traveling on a federation trip. “But to do this in an ancient synagogue that is 1,500 years old and reading the same words as they did then, draws you in to that whole connection.”

Heidi, who like her daughter was a first-time visitor to Israel, added, “We couldn’t help but be enthusiastic about it. It was magical. A trip of a lifetime.”

Jenna Benenson with parents Herb and Heidi, and Rabbi Alissa Forrest Miller (right)
Jenna Benenson with parents Herb and Heidi, and Rabbi Alissa Forrest Miller (right)

The Paykel family, including Sammy’s 11-year-old sister, Maya, also were first-timers.

“This was a really important moment,” reflected Sammy, 13, of his ceremony. “Not just because of becoming a bar mitzvah, but because I was doing it at an ancient site in Ein Gedi. I’ll never forget the experience.”

While Sammy’s dad, Joe, was taken in by the mosaic floor on which they stood and the Dead Sea in the background, his mother, Neela, felt linked to those who stood there before her.

“What we say in our services, that you are connecting to your ancestors, couldn’t be truer,” she said.

Each teen gave a “d’var Israel” (rather than d’var Torah) that focused on a particular place, person or phenomenon in the Jewish state. With an interest in how governments work, Jenna chose Independence Hall as her subject.

“Learning how Israel became a nation and learning about the people that made it happen made me want to dig deeper to learn about the state’s founders and how Israel was declared a nation,” said the incoming ninth-grader at Las Lomas High School. She was particularly impressed by the fact that Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, an atheist whom she perceived as not religious, timed the announcement of Israel’s statehood at 4 p.m. on a Friday to ensure observant Jews could return home in time for Shabbat.

Sammy’s topic echoed his interests in computer programming and technology, asking the question, “What drives Israel to be so innovative?” Learning that being a desert country where people have been challenged and have needed to conquer obstacles, he concluded, “Out of necessity, they had to think outside of the box.”

In August, the students will become the teachers as they reunite to share their divrei Israel in front of the congregation, along with special memories that brought them closer together as friends, congregants and a community—among the most critical aspects of the journey for Miller.

“People often say [after returning], ‘We’ve been involved with the synagogue for years, but now we were able to connect with other families on a different level’ or, ‘My husband came away with having friends,’ or the kids connected on a very different level,” Miller said.

This was certainly true for Sammy, a student at Orinda Intermediate School. “One of the greatest things about the trip,” he said, “was going with friends and people I never talked to before. It wasn’t just a family experience — we all became family.”

His dad agreed. “This was a way of connecting with different circles of our community. There was an electric feeling in the air that was more communal and larger than yourself.”

Miller underscored to the teens that they became b’nai mitzvah in their community, not just in their individual families.

She told them that they have “two homes” — in Israel and the United States. “This trip was about bringing our two communities together,” she said. “We were able to meet our goals of connecting to both the history of Israel and the modern state, to deepen our own Jewish identities, and to build community amongst ourselves.”

Elissa Einhorn
Elissa Einhorn

Elissa Einhorn began her writing career in the Bronx at the age of 8. She earned a master’s degree in communications and journalism 20 years later. While Elissa worked for non-profits her entire career, including as a Jewish communal professional, she now enjoys working for herself as a freelance writer. Still, her most treasured role is that of ima (mom) to twin daughters who she is (finally) happy to count among her friends.