My wife, Sharon, and I had our B’nai Mitzvah a couple of years apart in the mid-1980s at Temple Am David in Warwick. We think back to our special days with warm memories. Like most families, after each of our Shabbat morning ceremonies our parents sponsored a Kiddush luncheon that was attended by friends, family and fellow congregants. Later in the evening, we celebrated with a big party in the temple social hall.
Just like my two brothers had done before me, my father and I wore matching tuxedos to my party. Sharon wore a fancy dress on her special night. In each case, the room was transformed with different themes, decorated with beautiful flower arrangements and fancy table settings. We both had a live band and all of our guests were dressed up. Our events were very traditional, an evening that we both remember fondly, more than 30 years later.
Sharon and I got married at Am David and our reception was held in the same room as our Bar Mitzvah parties. Once again, the room was decorated beautifully and many of the same people who attended the Bar Mitzvahs saw us get married. That synagogue and social hall certainly holds a special place in our hearts and memories.
Several years after we were married, we decided to become foster parents. Kevin came to us when he 4 1/2 years old. While we thought his time with us would be short, reunification never happened and we adopted him at the age of 9. At about the age of 11, Kevin decided to convert to Judaism. Kevin attended our synagogue’s Hebrew school. He was quickly approaching 13, and we started to discuss his Bar Mitzvah. He did not want the typical Bar Mitzvah, where he was the center of attention with 200 people in the room.
After a lot of discussion, Sharon and I decided that our family of five should go on a trip to Israel and make Kevin’s Bar Mitzvah there. We felt that he could learn more about our people and the State of Israel. Our goal was to make this event meaningful for him. After several conversations with Kevin, about what the actual Bar Mitzvah would look like, he agreed that Israel was a better option for him.
We invited close family members to join us in Israel with the understanding that this kind of trip is more expensive than attending a local Bar Mitzvah and most likely we would not have a large crowd. Ultimately, we traveled to Israel with a group of 14 family members and our spiritual leader who agreed to help us with the service.
Sharon and I had been to Israel a number of times before. We felt comfortable planning this adventure. I had some contacts in Israel, and I found a young guide who was well recommended. I spent hours on the phone creating a trip that we hoped would not only be meaningful for first-timers, but would be memorable for people who had been there before. And of course we wanted to make Kevin’s Jewish journey something that he would cherish.
We decided to make Jerusalem our home base. We found a large home that we rented and all of us stayed together there. This added so much meaning to the trip. Our families came together, lived in the same dwelling for 10 days all to support our son becoming a man. Everyone who traveled with us talks about our time together and how we all grew closer.
Kevin’s Bar Mitzvah was at the Masorti section of the Western Wall. This is an area where men and women can pray together. The day of the Bar Mitzvah we all got dressed up Israeli-style and headed to the wall. Clouds were looming and if it rained, of course they would not allow us to use a Torah outside. Fortunately, the rain held off and we had a very extraordinary and meaningful Bar Mitzvah.
Kevin had heard of the Emunah center and the work that they do for at-risk children and we were able to share his Bar Mitzvah with another 13-year-old boy by the name of Nadav. The director of the Emunah center came to Jerusalem with Nadav and both of the boys shared the special day together.
A few days later our group made a very special visit to the Emunah center. For Kevin’s tzedakah project he collected needed items from people back home and delivered them to the Emunah center. It just so happened, that on the day of our visit, the center was given a Torah by a family in honor of the family’s father. They were holding a special dinner and dedicating the Torah. When they heard that we were there and what Kevin had done, they invited our group to join in their dinner and dedication. It was such a special day; a day that we hope will stay with Kevin and our group for a lifetime.
Everyone had a great trip and this is where we thought our story would end.
But six years later, our middle son Reese was getting ready to start studying for his Bar Mitzvah. We talked about the plans for the service and the evening party at home with all of our friends and families. However, as happens with siblings, Reese wanted what his brother had. He wanted a custom-planned, Reese-specific Bar Mitzvah trip.
While we had wanted our son to experience a Bar Mitzvah at home with our family and friends – as we experienced – we also wanted his experience to be what he wanted. And so we started planning our second Bar Mitzvah trip to Israel. I reached out to our guide again and began creating a different and meaningful Bar Mitzvah adventure for Reese. We invited our families again and this time 17 people decided to join us.
Reese is an artist and his Bar Mitzvah had to reflect art. Sharon found Abuhav Synagogue, a beautiful temple in Tzfat that helps families have a Bar Mitzvah in their magnificent building in the mystical city.
Sharon created the siddur mirroring the service that Reese was used to. For this trip we did not bring a rabbi or a cantor. Since we were in an orthodox synagogue, I acted as the rabbi and helped Reese lead his service and follow in Kevin’s footsteps to become a man in Israel. After the service, we had a beautiful lunch at a nearby restaurant.
The one thing that Reese felt that he missed by not having a traditional Bar Mitzvah at home was a candle-lighting ceremony. We were able to arrange a cake after lunch and Reese created his own ceremony using his iPod and a wireless speaker to invite his guests to light candles and have the honor that he felt was important. He chose a song for each guest and wrote some thoughtful remarks about each person. We ended the day with a sunset cruise on the Sea of Galilee. Once again, we felt that we had created a different and memorable experience for our son
Again, this is where we thought our traveling Bar Mitzvah story would end.
Reese and our youngest son Cooper are 21 months apart, so it was not long after we returned from Israel that Cooper started preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. As I am sure you can guess, Cooper did not want anything to do with a Bar Mitzvah at home. We actually pleaded with him to have it at home. We explained that we had just been in Israel and we did not think that many people would be able to join us. The trip is expensive and everyone had been to Israel just over a year ago. Cooper said while he wanted everyone to come, he would still be OK if it was a small group or even only our immediate family.
So Sharon and I began to plan our third Bar Mitzvah in Israel and worked to make it special for Cooper.
To our surprise, 27 family and friends wanted to join us for our final adventure to Israel. This trip was going to be harder to plan. Almost everyone from the first two trips was returning for this third trip. In addition, we had a few people who had never been to Israel and a few who were not Jewish. Cooper’s actual Bar Mitzvah was on Christmas Day. Although not a big deal in Israel, the fact that three people were interested in leaving their families and joining ours on Christmas was amazing.
The ages in this group ranged from 13 to 81. Just transporting 27 people around the country was a challenge. For Cooper’s adventure, we would stay at four different hotels.
Once again, I called our guide and this time he was not surprised. During Reese’s trip, our guide would often offer Cooper suggestions for his trip, even though I kept telling him we were not coming back!
Cooper loves the outdoors and anything to do with adventure. There was no way that his Bar Mitzvah could be inside. In addition, Cooper wanted to see Eilat and visit Petra, Jordan.
We spent weeks brainstorming the perfect location for his special day. We finally decided on the ancient ruins of the Ein Gedi Synagogue. It is located at the Ein Gedi Oasis next to Masada. They have uncovered the beautiful mosaic floor, and they have added a permanent covering to protect the ruins. From the tiny corner that visitors are allowed to use, Cooper and our guests could look out and see the desert, the mountains and the Dead Sea.
Again, Sharon created a beautiful siddur for the service. This time, she acted as the rabbi and assisted Cooper. Cooper did a fantastic job following in Kevin and Reese’s footsteps and becoming a man in Israel. He was so touched that all of his friends and family made another journey to Israel. During his D’var Torah, in addition to teaching us about his Torah portion, he personally thanked each person who joined him on his adventure and added something special about their relationship.
At the end of the service, he lead the “Adon Olam” to the tune of “Jingle Bells” in honor of our non-Jewish guests. We are fairly confident that has never been done before!
We all have fond memories of our Bar/Bat Mitzvah experiences and truly appreciate all of the effort and expense that our parents spent to make our days so special. Sharon and I hope that our children have and will continue to have similar feelings when they remember their Bar Mitzvah adventures. We also hope that because they had these experiences in Israel it will make their experience that much more meaningful.
GARRETT SOCK lives in Providence.