Non-Traditional Bnai Mitzvot Ceremonies in Israel

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November 3, 2011 at 12:03 pm #6262

Mark Lazar

In this post-modern world of Jewish choices, I believe we all need to empower ourselves with our own form of Jewish identity. We are connected to our historical and cultural past, but we are truly free to choose personal meaning. How do we find ways to internalize this? How do we pass this on to our children and grandchildren? I believe one effective way is by making a personal family journey of celebration to Israel. I further believe that in custom making our own rituals and ceremonies, we can create lasting memories that enhance our lives and the lives of the ones we care about.

Since making aliyah in 1993 and living in Israel, I have conducted non-traditional Bar and Bat Mitzvot ceremonies here and abroad. Initially it began with families from the liberal congregation where I had been the Director of Education and Youth before my move. These families requested ceremonies that were personalized and were conducted at places like the beautiful lookouts of Jerusalem or the sun-setting beaches at the Mediterranean, at historical sites such as in the Jerusalem Old City or at Masada, or at truly original Israeli locations like the Judean desert or on Kibbutzim or even at a Bedouin tent! I would put together a rather liberal ceremony, working with the family, empowering all who were interested in participating and ensuring that it had meaning for all members of the family and friends.

In the late ’90’s I began working with families with modern-day Eastern European backgrounds who had not been able to have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah during the Communist era or with the Orthodox dominated segment of their community. Whether it was here in Israel or in Eastern Europe, we found ways to conduct ceremonies for those that wanted to “officially” become a B’nai Mitzvah, a member of our people, at whatever age and with whatever background.

As a guide with Birthright in its initial years, I was asked several more times to conduct Bnai Mitzvot ceremonies for young adults who had also not had the opportunity to go through a ritual that in their minds solidified their position as a member of our tribe. It was truly a pleasure to see young people feel they were part of something much larger than themselves, a connection to a people, a land, and a past.

To this day, I continue to do ceremonies with families and Birthright groups who are touring Israel, and to be honest, I still find tears of joy and meaning in my eyes when doing these gatherings.

The benefits of a family trip in Israel and the center of it being a Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony is amazing. Here is some of the feedback I have gathered over the years:

From the youth: “I don’t how to say it, I…I…really feel Jewish now.”

From the mother: “It was our ceremony! Not the rabbi’s or the synagogue’s or the caterers! It was ours.”

From the father: “You wouldn’t believe what I would have spent on one night compared to this fantastic trip for the entire family. She’s going to have a party anyway with her friends, but now she’s just had the trip of her life! We’ve just had the trip of our lives!”

From the grandmother: “Seeing my grandson stand before the ancient wall brought tears to my eyes.”

From the grandfather: “We said the Shema prayer together…me and him…if only my father and mother could have seen it…”

From the aunt: “I’m the ‘non-Jewish’ member of the family. Sometimes I feel left out. On this trip, I felt left in. It’s been amazing.”

I believe in a pluralistic approach to our peoplehood and as I am not affiliated with any movement, I am not bound with any restrictions that some streams may require. There are many qualified people who are affiliated here in Israel that I can recommend as well, if you are looking in that direction.

A Bar or Bat Mitzvah can happen at any age. It can happen with any number of people. It can happen at any location. It can happen…and then it can become a lasting memory and an integral part of one’s identity.

If you are interested in working with me or someone else in this endeavor, please let us know. I do believe this can make a difference in the life a participant, a family and our people.

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