Factor in the enormous guest lists, global cuisine and diversions such as high-tech interactive entertainment, and it is clear that bar and bat mitzvah celebrations have become more sophisticated than they were even a decade ago.
But not every student wants to celebrate becoming a son or daughter of the commandment with a 300-strong guest list and bragging rights at school the following week. Some teens would like their coming-of-age celebrations to reflect a sense of belonging within the Jewish community.
This is where destination bar and bat mitzvahs come in, offering families a wonderful alternative: a bonding experience that is both intimate and larger than life.
Jerusalem comes to mind as the ultimate destination for a bar or bat mitzvah, with other Israeli cities such as Haifa, Tel Aviv and Eilat nearly as popular. But there are less-obvious locations in the United States and abroad that offer a Jewish context. The locations can tap in to a teen’s personal interests and studies while enabling the entire family to explore other aspects of Jewish history and culture beyond the Holy Land.
The travel alternative has become so popular, in fact, that companies like Bar/Bat Mitzvah Vacations (barmitzvahvacations.com) and Totally Jewish Travel (totallyjewishtravel.com) offer bar/bat mitzvah trips suited for family groups with destination in the United States, the Caribbean, Europe and South America as well as cruises.
Dating back to the colonial era, Touro Synagogue (tourosynagogue.org) is the oldest surviving synagogue building in the United States.
Founded in 1658 as Yeshuat Israel, congregants Mordechai Campanal and Moses Israel Paeheco purchased a lot at what is now Kay and Touro streets to build a spiritual home for Jewish settlers in 1677. With the growth of Newport’s Jewish community, the congregation turned to architect Peter Harrison in 1759 to expand their home. For the building’s exterior, Harrison drew on his knowledge of and enthusiasm for Palladian architecture. For the interior, he relied upon the guidance of the congregation, notably Hazzan Isaac Touro, who had only recently arrived from Amsterdam. The Newport building was completed in 1763 and was dedicated during Chanukah of that year.
A Sephardic Orthodox congregation today, Touro Synagogue — renamed in honor of the hazzan’s sons, who bequeathed money for the synagogue property’s upkeep — is available to rent for bar mitzvahs and weddings. A must-see destination for Jewish-history buffs, Touro’s adjacent Loeb Visitors Center explores the history of religious freedom in the United States as well as the synagogue itself, which received visits from Presidents George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.
Given that Philadelphia is a city resplendent with both American and Jewish-American history, the arrival of adulthood is well celebrated at the National Museum of American Jewish History (nmajh.org). While the Smithsonian-affiliated museum is a popular site among local Philadelphia families, this standard-bearer will appeal to families throughout the United States because of the way it captures the American-Jewish experience, exploring how Jews shape and are shaped by the United States. The collection displays more than 1,200 artifacts and documents dating back more than 350 years, 2,500 images and 30 original films, and provides visitors with an opportunity to share their own stories. Featuring a view of Independence Mall, the five-story glass-facade museum rents a variety of spaces for private events, accommodating groups as small as 15 to as large as 750.
Litchfield Hills, Conn.
Although the heyday of the Catskills family escape is forever cemented in American pop culture in a variety of films and television shows (most notably “Dirty Dancing”), the private resort Winvian (winvian.com) brings together old-school charm and modern conveniences. Granted, it is in Connecticut and not upstate New York, but it has the preppy East Coast vibe and small-town charm that will stir up nostalgia among parents and grandparents, perhaps inspiring lively evenings filled with stories about “the good old days.” Located two hours outside of New York City, Winvian offers event planning services as well as group buyout for special celebrations. It is also a good choice for those who have retained ties with extended family in the New York metro area.
Sedona is known for its Red Rocks, panoramic vistas and hip artists’ community vibe as well as plenty of Southwestern U.S. history and lore. However, the spiritual nature of its larger-than-life setting and the popularity of kabbalah among Jewish locals complete the picture. The area’s welcoming Jewish community has its home at the Jewish Community of Sedona and the Verde Valley (jcsvv.org), an egalitarian and inclusive synagogue that marries various Jewish traditions in its services.
Located in the heart of Sedona, El Portal Sedona Hotel (elportalsedona.com) can help coordinate an intimate celebration, accommodating a reception of up to 35 people comfortably in the great room or its private courtyard.
Although the historic city is best known for its souks (markets), fashionable riad-style hotels, and its role as an aesthetic muse for designer Yves Saint Laurent (parents of budding fashionistas, take note), Marrakech has Jewish roots that date back to biblical times, through the Spanish Inquisition and into the 20th century. Although many Moroccan Jews migrated to Los Angeles and other cities, Rabbi Jacky Kadoch (firstname.lastname@example.org), president of Community Israelite de Marrakech-Essaouria, notes this exciting city still bears many stamps of its Jewish history, from the mellah (the former Jewish quarter) to booths at the main souk where you may just find your next family heirloom. If time allows, side trips to El Jadida and Essaouria are also worth the effort.
The oldest operating congregation in the Western hemisphere originated in 1651 when the Dutch West India Co. made an appeal on behalf of Jan de Illan, a successful Jewish-Portuguese businessman, to set up a trade post on the remote Caribbean island during the Spanish Inquisition.
In 1732, Curacao’s expanding Jewish community relocated its house of worship, Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue (snoa.com), to a charming yellow Dutch colonial building, which is now also home to the island’s Jewish museum. The main sanctuary is beautifully outfitted with carved mahogany pews, bimah and ark; copper chandeliers; and beige sand, which covers the floor for symbolic reasons: a reminder of the great Exodus as well as a means to muffle footsteps of those who practiced their Jewish faith in secret during the Inquisition.
With many Ashkenazi American families tracing their family roots to Hungary, the Jewish Visitors’ Service (jewishvisitorsservice.com) has taken a proactive stance in promoting the regal European destination as a bar/bat mitzvah spot that combines Jewish cultural enlightenment with a dazzling immersion into the rich Eastern European urban society where past generations of Jewish families once thrived.
For families who embrace water sports and tropical settings, Tahiti is a great choice. The arrival point is capital Papeete, which boasts a surprisingly rich history in the Jewish community and has an operating synagogue (established in 1993). The community of 200 Jews passionately works toward preserving Judaism through such organizations as the Cultural Association for Israelites and Polynesian Friends, established in the 1960s. Two of the community’s Torah scrolls were gifts from the Egyptian-Jewish community of Paris, and a community in Los Angeles, respectively.