Karen Feuerstein wanted her daughter to feel special on the day she officially became bat mitzvah, so she decided to break the mold and host her daughter’s coming-of-age ceremony at a tourist destination.
In March, Karen and her family will travel east from their home in Bethesda to the National Aquarium at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. The family belongs to a synagogue in Montgomery County, where their daughter has also attended religious school since she was 3, but when they discovered all the restrictions for hosting the ceremony at the synagogue — limited dates available, little family participation — they decided to think outside the box.
“We decided not to have our daughter’s bat mitzvah [at our home synagogue] because, quite frankly, it became too stressful, and I feared that the end result would not be a meaningful experience for my child and our family,” she says. “In a large congregation like the one we belong to, the ceremony is less about the child, and more about welcoming that child into the community.”
At first they planned a cruise for close family in which the bat mitzvah would take place, but when it proved impossible for the whole family to commit to five days at sea, the decision was made to host the ceremony and celebration in Baltimore.
In the months leading up to the big day, Feuerstein’s daughter has been working regularly with Cantor Glenn Sherman, a Florida-based cantor who has made a business out of catering to children and families who want to host their ceremony in a non-traditional setting.
“It’s a nice alternative for people who don’t belong to a synagogue who are like ‘what do I do? We have to have a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, what do I do?’” says Sherman. But many of his clients, like the Feuerstein family do belong to synagogues but, for one reason or another, feel more comfortable hosting the event elsewhere.
Whether it’s scheduling conflicts, hosting a b’nai mitzvah on a Saturday afternoon or allowing the family the chance to make speeches, Sherman says he is able to accommodate almost any request with his destination service.
“I don’t have any rules,” he says, adding that he has worked with teens from all sects of Judaism.
Another benefit of hosting an out-of-town bar mitzvah is the cost. While travelling to Barbados or Colorado for a bar or bat mitzvah might sound lavish and expensive, destination b’nai mitzvah operators point out that the cost is often no more — and usually less — than the over-the-top parties that have become the norm.
The big parties are a major driver for Colorado-based Adventure Rabbi’s business, according to founder Rabbi Jamie Korngold, who says many parents view the b’nai mitzvah she offers as a way to escape the consumerism they believe has hijacked many celebrations.
Adventure Rabbi works with students all over the world to plan b’nai mitzvah ceremonies in all kinds of places. Korngold will travel to Hawaii soon to preside over the bat mitzvah of an Australian girl. In the past, she or her staff have worked with students as far away as Cambodia and Iraq using Skype for instruction, a method Sherman employs as well.
“I think a lot of people are trying to simplify, and taking it out of town does just that,” says Korngold. “People don’t invite all the guests. It takes a lot of materialism out of it.
“The irony is it does exactly the opposite of what many people think it does,” she says. “A lot of people think, ‘well, it takes you away
from the community.’ It doesn’t. It takes you to your actual community, because the 25 people who come with you, or the 10 or the four, you have this really profound experience with them of sincere group building.”
Many of the families Ellen Paderson works with through her company, Smiles and Miles Travel, are trying to find a way to get together for the special occasion at a time when many families are spread out all over the country, even all over the globe.
“What I hear from people who call is ‘We just don’t want to spend thousands of dollars on a three hour party, it’s ridiculous, we don’t want to have to keep up with the Jones’, and this gives us a way to invite just our closest friends and family,’” says Paderson.
In the end, she says, the family walks away with a unique shared memory.
Says Korngold: “People are looking for an authentic, connecting experience.”