In 2010, Amy Krauss reflexively set a bar mitzvah date for her son at their Tucson, Ariz., Reform synagogue.
Then she started rethinking her decision. Her son, Sam, is somewhat shy and made it clear he’d prefer an intimate service to a performance in front of hundreds. Krauss was mulling ways to give Sam, as she put it, “an experience rather than a party” when an Israeli neighbor mentioned the historic synagogue in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.
Later that year, Sam Gordon became a bar mitzvah amid the Sephardic arches and sandy floor of the St. Thomas Synagogue, surrounded by 10 friends and family members. The group then returned to their Royal Caribbean ship, which had set sail from Puerto Rico, to relax on a weeklong cruise.
“It was important for us that our son become a bar mitzvah in a synagogue (rather than on board the ship, which was another option),” wrote Krauss in an e-mail. Sam and his family were only the latest in a centuries-old tradition of Jews from abroad worshipping in the St. Thomas Synagogue.
But it was a far cry from the local temple, once a given as the location for a family bar or bat mitzvah.
It has long been a tradition for some to turn the lifecycle event into a family pilgrimage to Israel. But as Americans travel abroad in larger numbers and so-called “destination” weddings increase in popularity, more and more Jewish families are opting to celebrate the rite of passage away from home.
And while Israel remains a popular choice, many families are looking elsewhere for less-obvious yet still meaningful locations.
Sam Gordon’s bar mitzvah trip was organized by Ellen Paderson, whose Massachusetts-based company, Smiles and Miles Travel, is a specialist in destination events.
About half of her clients choose Italy, where she works with Rabbi Barbara Aiello on events at the rabbi’s historic congregation in Calabria. The other half head to the Caribbean or hold their event in Florida, then set sail for a cruise. In addition to arranging the trip itineraries, Paderson coordinates with a Reform cantor who travels on demand and customizes the service for each child.
Historic synagogues abroad offer memorable settings with a connection to Jewish heritage. With dwindling local memberships, many are now marketing themselves as venues to the American bar mitzvah crowd — a symbiotic relationship in a global age.
In the Caribbean, Curaçao and St. Thomas are popular for their stunning Sephardic buildings and centuries of tangible history.
Those for whom flexibility is paramount might choose a ceremony at a resort or on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, Mexico or the Mediterranean.
Over and over, those who choose destination events cite common reasons for the choice. Some children are not synagogue members or are unable to meet the commitments for conventional Jewish education.
Other children are introverted or uncomfortable with the performance aspect of a traditional service, preferring a more intimate ritual.
Relatively few travel outfits handle bar mitzvah tours, though interest is growing. But unique ceremonies have always been a specialty of Adventure Rabbi, an alternative synagogue program based in Boulder, Colo., and Lake Tahoe that has organized bar and bat mitzvahs in locations as varied as British Columbia, Hawaii, the Grand Canyon and Laguna Beach.
The Adventure Rabbi approach emphasizes nature as a way of enhancing a spiritual connection; many bar mitzvahs involve a group hike before prayer under the stars. Rabbi Jamie Korngold, the spiritual leader, aims to restore what she calls “a sense of awe” sometimes lost in modern life.
Rabbi Korngold and her team typically train children via Skype.
Economics is seldom a primary motivation, though the cost of a destination event — even one that doubles as a lavish foreign vacation — is frequently less than a conventional affair, which can easily exceed $50,000. Most obviously, a destination event involves far fewer people, obviating the cost of a reception that would typically include non-immediate family, peripheral friends and the entire bar/bat mitzvah class.
Paderson charges a $500 initial fee, followed by the standard charges for travel agent services. The cost for a bar/bat mitzvah trip averages about $2,000 per person for a weeklong excursion, excluding airfare and the event itself — costs that can, of course, vary widely.
Italy is her priciest option, but it proved ideal for MaryAnn Bernstein when her son, Ethan, became a bar mitzvah last June.
The Bernsteins are members of a temple near their home in suburban Chicago. But after celebrating his older sister’s bat mitzvah in Israel, Ethan wanted a similar experience abroad. When Bernstein couldn’t find an Israel itinerary that suited the family needs, she started researching other destinations with Paderson, settling on Italy for its culture and heritage.
While the trip was physically challenging for the grandparents, Bernstein said it was a meaningful immersion into a foreign Jewish culture for the whole family. They toured Venice’s ghetto, ate gelato in Florence and visited historic synagogues in Rome.
As Ethan himself put it: “Part of what made it special to me was learning about the history of being Jewish in another part of the world.”