Of Birthright and B’nai Mitzvahs: Israel Trips Offer a Coming-of-Age Experience

From left: Maggie Kohl, Brooke Petrucci, Sarah Kohl, Evan Tarloff, and Shawn Tarloff during their b’nai mitzvah ceremony in Jerusalem.

It is of course a momentous day whenever a maturing Jewish boy or girl has their bar or bat mitzvah and, with it, takes their first steps into adulthood. But that day becomes all the more special when they are able to take those steps while on a journey through the Jewish homeland.

“Originally, I was going to go into it very headstrong. I wanted to have my bat mitzvah right away,” said Brooke Petrucci, a sophomore at Towson University, regarding her feelings about having her bat mitzvah while on her Birthright Israel trip in January.

Birthright often offers its young adult attendees the opportunity to have a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony while in Israel. Some who decide to do it, like Petrucci, never had the coming-of-age ceremony when they were 12 or 13 years old. Others did and decide to participate for other reasons.

When Petrucci was still 12 years old, she said, her mother was working to earn her graduate degree and did not have the time necessary to be part of a synagogue. But when Petrucci began her undergraduate education, she started to connect much more with her Judaism.

Petrucci confessed, however, that during the trip she began to have second thoughts, that perhaps she should wait until her return to the U.S., that she might have the ceremony while with her family and friends.

She was having those doubts until half an hour before the group service in Jerusalem began.

“A friend asked why I had changed my mind,” Petrucci said. “I realized that your Birthright group is kind of like a family.”

“Even though I may not see most of these people again, it truly was amazing to be with these people to do it,” Petrucci continued. “And I’ve realized that even after Birthright, some of these people will be with me for the rest of my life.”

Shawn Tarloff, a freshman at Towson, was part of Petrucci’s group, and also described his bar mitzvah in Israel as a deeply moving experience. “Judaism is something that is very important to me,” he said. “But sometimes in the
modern world, it’s not so easy to go to synagogue all the time, or eat kosher all the time.”

Although Tarloff had already had one bar mitzvah when he was 13, he said that “having the opportunity to reaffirm that you are Jewish is really important to me. And that’s why I took the opportunity to be bar mitzvahed in Israel.”

For both Tarloff and Petrucci, their coming-of-age ceremony was a major highlight of their Birthright experience. Tarloff also recounted feeding chickens and cows at an Israeli farm, visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and touring the shops of Tel Aviv.

“Probably the most memorable thing was riding a camel with my brother [Evan] in the Negev,” Tarloff said. “I got to do it sitting right in front of my brother, so it was really special.”

Brooke Petrucci during her bat mitzvah ceremony.

Petrucci said she appreciated being able to see a diverse slice of what Israel had to offer. “There were times when we were in the heart of urban society, when we saw the Western Wall, and other times when it was quiet and quaint, spending time in a Bedouin tent.”

Petrucci also was grateful that her group was made up of students from both Towson and Johns Hopkins University, providing her the opportunity to spend time with fellow students she never would have met otherwise.

Petrucci and Tarloff’s ceremony was held in a hotel in Jerusalem, as part of a mixed group that also included participants Evan Tarloff, Sarah Kohl, and Maggie Kohl, Tarloff said. “We decided we would have the Torah portion transliterated, so it was the Hebrew text with English letters. Our whole Birthright bus got together, we did the Torah portion, they threw candy at us, and they lifted us up in the chairs.”

When asked if she would encourage other Birthright participants to have bat or bar mitzvahs while on their Israeli excursion, Petrucci replied, “Yes, I definitely would. Because you are in Israel, and it’s an incredible moment that should not be passed up to have it in such an incredible place.”

“It was truly a touching moment in the end, and my mom and dad were there in spirit,” Petrucci said. “And even though I wasn’t with my family and friends from home, these people are now my family.”

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