Planning a bat mitzvah in Israel is not a small matter. It took a series of totally overblown state side receptions to send me running for the (Judean) hills. After the electric guitar incident, I was sure I wanted to host a Bat Mitzvah in Israel for my daughter.
Fortunately for me I had some trailblazing friends and family who were able to provide great advice and contacts. Also fortunate – I’d spent a fair amount of time in Israel when I was young, so I had some idea what to expect in terms of climate, conditions and planning. I won’t lie – I had fabulous luck as well.
While I was pretty sure we all wanted to “do this thing” in Israel, there were a lot of questions we asked ourselves (and some on the list below we SHOULD have asked ourselves) before making this commitment.
If you are considering a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in Israel, now is the time for your whole family to do some soul searching. Ask yourself and your family the following questions:
What is your budget?
If I had a nickel for every time I heard “I bet you’re saving a bundle doing this in Israel!” I might have been able to upgrade one of our plane tickets. It is not inexpensive to have a Bar or a Bat in Israel. Depending on what you might have planned for the US and what you plan for Israel, it probably will work out the same or slightly more. Keep in mind that flights are about $1200 per person (give or take), hotels can run $200-400 a night, and that you will spend about $800-1200 if you work with a rabbi or other professional to coordinate your studies, permits, location and ceremony. Car rentals run about $600-800 per week and parking can be difficult/expensive in cities like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. If you wish to provide a set meal for your family and friends after the ceremony, expect to pay around $40 – $65 per person for a nicer restaurant.
Many synagogue offer tour packages for Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and if this is your first trip to Israel, and/or you don’t like to go it alone, you might want to investigate the package route. These trips typically start around $3000 per person including airfare.
Note: These figures are all very “ballpark” but are being provided to help you start to create a realistic estimate.
How important is it to you to have your friends and family there for your occasion?
If you plan a bar/bat in Israel, it is unlikely that many of your friends and family from here will there to see it. Travel to Israel is expensive and daunting to many. You will need to manage your expectations. On the other hand, some family members might just surprise you. They may have always wanted to go and you may be giving them the perfect nudge!
Who will come and what (if any) accommodations would need to be made?
If you do in fact have family in Israel, or family traveling with you, you should keep their needs in mind when planning. In our case, my 80-something parents were traveling along with us and this made me think hard about accommodations, about ceremony locations and what the walk in/out was like, about tours and sightseeing and about location for our lunch afterwards. I was concerned about them in the heat and uneven terrain. I personally have dietary restrictions (Gluten Free). These are the sort of things you will want to do some research on before you book a spot.
How well do you travel?
Not everyone enjoys getting out of their comfort zone. Be honest with yourself. If it’s going to make you very stressed and uncomfortable, and it won’t be a good memory, you might want to think twice.
How well does your child study, independently?
Studying for a Bar or Bat mitzvah in Israel (unless you are part of a group from a Synagogue), can be a bit of a maverick affair. It is likely you will have to do a bit of ceremony design work on your own and your child will certainly have to do more of the studying alone. In our case we were able to coordinate between a tutor in the USA and the Rabbi in Israel and had regular check in sessions via Skype. However, the process was much more independent and unmonitored than my own studies as a child or my older daughter’s. If your child works best as part of a group, or working one on one regularly with a tutor – you will need to make these arrangements in advance and create a plan on your own.
How religious are you? What are you looking for in the ceremony?
My cousin’s son was Bar Mitzvahed the same week as my daughter. His moving and lovely ceremony was set at a hotel, facing the Old City. Friends and family (including multiple Rabbis) gathered for both Friday night and Saturday services, both of which were entirely conducted in Hebrew and hours long. It was a very traditional service, followed by a traditional reception, and perfect for their family. Her son was a rockstar, and there were many members of the family that stepped up to read Torah and receive honors.
To contrast, my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah took place in a archaeological park beside the wailing wall, in an area where men and women are welcome to pray and celebrate together. Our ceremony was an abbreviated weekday service of about 45 min, set against a backdrop of drumming, ululating and tambourine shaking as other families, gathered in clusters in the distance throughout the large park, celebrated their own other occasions. My daughter read her Torah portion beautifully and recited the prayers, and we had a few special prayers that were read in both Hebrew and English by attendees. Much of the ceremony was conducted in English. It was a breezy sunny day and the outdoor location, surrounded by stones steeped in history and the sounds of the Old City, was a beautiful dream come true.
Both of our events were technically “conservative” but they were very very different experiences, and ultimately, both were right for our families. It’s important to write down at the onset, what sort of experience you are looking for. Odds are you can have it, but you have to know what it is you want.
How important is the reception to you? Was your/your child’s heart set on a large or lavish reception?
Speak now or forever (or at least till you plan a wedding) hold your peace.
Will your child want to have a separate party for their friends? Note: Define and set a budget for the party now, so that you can manage expectations later.
See above. If you are planning a Bar or Bat in Israel, and your child has many friends who are having stateside Bar/Bat Mitvahs, you might want to throw a party for the kids. Or you may want to spring on a reception here regardless. Set the budget and expectations before you plan your Israel trip.
How much time can you take off from work/school and spend in Israel?
It’s a long way to travel and you will want to make the most of the trip. Plan accordingly!
Will you bundle additional travel into this trip? Where to?
There are many places in Europe that offer great stop over opportunities. You could see Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, do some family heritage tourism in Poland or Italy, or check out Paris and Barcelona. Our family opted for a post Bat Mitzvah Mediterranean cruise, which proved a magnificent opportunity for everyone to relax and be pampered while taking in a lot of historic and cultural sights. This did, however, significantly add to our trip expenses.
Do gifts matter a lot? Were you counting on them to fund a future car, college fund etc?
The fact of the matter is that your child probably will get fewer gifts, by virtue of the fact that there will be fewer attendees. This should not be a consideration but it may be for some families, particularly if an older sibling has Bar/Bat funds in the bank earmarked for a future car etc.
What’s most important about Israel to you? Why do you want to go there and what do you want to see?
Besides the Bar/Bat, what will you do in Israel? Sure everyone goes to Masada and the Wailing Wall/Old City of Jerusalem. But what else? History, religion and nature buffs will all be delighted by what Israel has to offer!
If you are not part of a formal group/tour you will need to do some planning. I’ll provide some links and suggestions in my next posts, as well share more about our ceremony location and some of the touring and activities we did.
(To Be Continued)