The Jewish Week
Thursday, March 26, 2009 1 Nissan 5769
At Mason Barnard’s bar mitzvah two years ago, there were none of the typical trappings of a synagogue ceremony: congregation, bima, ark full of Torah scrolls.
That’s because Mason’s bar mitzvah was officiated by Rabbi Jamie Korngold, a.k.a. “the Adventure Rabbi,” and held in a state park near his Denver home. Mason had grown up playing in that park, and having the service in nature held significance for him and his family that no traditional bar mitzvah ever could have.
“I just thought that the bar mitzvah at the temple didn’t mean as much to me as it should have,” said Mason, now 15. Even though his older sister had a traditional bat mitzvah, he found that “the Adventure Rabbi and her way of
doing bar mitzvahs is connected more to how I felt about Judaism. She she made it a lot easier to understand the process of the bar mitzvah; it made it more symbolic and special.”
Mason’s mother, Cindy Barnard, said the whole process with the Adventure Rabbi showed her a side of her son she had never known.
“I never knew how spiritual my son was,” said Barnard. “The ceremony meant something, and [the rabbi’s] discussion of God and what it meant, her whole concept of God in the outdoors — that’s my son. He has those same thoughts.”
Rabbi Korngold’s business, launched eight years ago, is just one example of the growing number of alternative ways families can plan bar mitzvah celebrations in an increasingly niche world. These options, usually utilized by Reform or progressive families, range from bowling bar mitzvahs and outdoor adventures to destination cruises or trips to foreign lands.
But is an alternative bar mitzvah little more than a glitz-quest? An assertion of individualism? Or can it be a meaningful, personal experience in line with Jewish tradition?
Every year, Rabbi Korngold works with about a dozen students around the world, preparing them for their ceremonies over Skype, a program that enables free calls over the Internet. Her students study aspects of Judaism from Hebrew to Torah, participate in social action programs and ultimately travel to Boulder, Colo., for their ceremonies. Her services cost about $3,000 including the ceremony, with the option to purchase additional Hebrew tutoring sessions. One current student, whose father’s job requires the family to live in Vietnam, works with a bar mitzvah tutor who wakes up at 4 a.m. every Wednesday to meet the student online.
“Most of the families who come to us are … trying to escape the conspicuous consumption of the parties; they’re looking to get out of the party competition and bring the bar mitzvah back to a spiritual moment,” said Rabbi Korngold. She runs outdoor programs year-round in observance of Jewish holidays and life-cycle events, and feels the families that come to her have their most spiritual moments outdoors. “The bar mitzvah represents a unique opportunity for the whole family to get jazzed about Judaism.”
In addition to outdoor adventures, bar mitzvah families are also jumping aboard cruise ships and visiting synagogues around the Caribbean through Ellen Paderson’s business Smiles and Miles Travel. A rabbi or cantor hired for the event sometimes performs several bnei mitzvah during each cruise. Other families choose to hold their ceremonies on land in places like Curacao, which boasts the oldest synagogue in the West Indies, dating back more than 350 years.
“Instead of spending all that money for three, four hours on a party, they’re going with close friends and relatives and having a nice celebration,” she said of the destination bar mitzvahs, which cost between $1,500 and $2,000 for a service, rabbi and kiddish when held on an island. Some families pay for relatives and friends to join them on the cruise, which can run around $20,000 for 20 guests.
Despite the current economic climate, Pederson maintains that her business is not struggling, that in fact a destination bar mitzvah with a scaled-back party and only a few close guests can be more affordable than a lavish party after a service at the local synagogue.
Another option for families looking for alternatives to a synagogue bar mitzvah is a private tutor. Cantor Ronald Broden is a bar mitzvah tutor and he conducts ceremonies anywhere a family requests — a restaurant, hotel or backyard — mainly working with interfaith families, those who have moved but want a bar mitzvah in their former hometown, or those whose children may not thrive in a typical learning environment.
Cantor Broden, who charges $90 an hour for in-home lessons, works with some students for a few months — to learn the basic blessings — and with others for a few years.
But Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin executive director of Kol Echad: Making Judaism Matter, and author of “Putting God on the Guest List,” a book about reclaiming the spiritual meaning of bar and bat mitzvahs, thinks the trend toward an individualized, alternative bar mitzvah experience is negative, undermining the community the bar mitzvah is entering into.
“I’m all for creativity, but I’m also all for community. These alternative and destination bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies are deliberately crafted with one child and family in mind. They they lose any sense of connection to a congregation, and Judaism can only live in the context of a larger community,” he said. “This trend is problematic and I would urge Jewish communal leaders, educators and clergy to think about its implications.”
This is something Cantor Broden has done.
“Judaism always emphasized community. You don’t get that working one-on-one. When you belong to a synagogue there’s community,” he said. “But I know children get a lot more [one-on-one] than in a classroom with 15 or 20 children.”
Ultimately it is up to families to decide what type of ceremonies best suit their children’s needs.
As Cindy Barnard said of her son, “to have his bar mitzvah truly mean something for him, I don’t see shying away from it at all.”