My oldest son became a bar mitzvah in November. We had a congregational Kiddush luncheon in his honor, and a small party for him and his friends that evening. Instead of having the grand blowout party that seems to be the general expectation in my New Jersey suburb, we opted to go to Israel instead. And it was the best decision I possibly could have made, for these reasons (among others):
1. Visiting Israel is not just any trip. Sure, we could have gone to Paris, or Punta Cana, or to see penguins in Antarctica, for that matter. But the trip to see the Jewish state is a special one, and one I wanted to save as a special one to honor my son becoming a bar mitzvah. The implicit message I wanted to send my son was this: “You have just pledged yourself as a full member of the people of Israel. We happen to live in an era of history in which Jews not only live in, but also govern, Israel. You, my son, are part of this history. The lives of the people who live here are inextricably intertwined with yours; the history that happened here is your history. Let’s go see your world.”
2. You get to focus on the mitzvah, rather than the bar. When you take your kid to Israel, you don’t have to stress about the alcohol per head at your event—instead, you get to think about the good deed you are doing by taking your kid somewhere truly important and showing your kid that the world is bigger than the small sphere carved out for them at middle school. When your child attends a school where there are many lavish parties, the “bar” continues to be raised as to the parties. Worrying about the party takes an inordinate amount of the time, effort, and money when planning for a child to become a bar or bat mitzvah—personally, I was very grateful to take that worry out of the equation.
3. The math works in your favor. For the complete cost of a lavish four-hour, 200+ person party, you can have a week-long vacation in one of the most fascinating places in the world. The photos you will take on your iPhone of your family in front of the Western Wall will be more precious to you than the professionally-taken photos of your guests with cocktails in hand. The stronger sense of self and history that comes from this trip is, of course, priceless.
4. Israel is delicious. Whatever caterer you may find cannot equal the pleasure of Israel’s food. Whether you want to try kosher gourmet street food at Crave in Jerusalem (tell them I sent you!), incredible gelato at Anita’s in Tel Aviv, or savory falafel with hummus and tahini basically anywhere, you will be happy and full.
5. More time = more memories. While I am sure we would have wonderful memories of my son and extended family and friends at a large blowout party, I will say I am profoundly grateful to have made the decision I made to go to Israel instead. While in Israel, we did everything from sample a Hannukkah sufganiya (doughnut) per day (at least!) to arguing about the definition of terrorism. We learned about wild horses in a makhtesh (what’s a makhtesh? Go to Israel and find out!) and about the Israeli Declaration of Independence in the hall where it was signed. The memories forged in Israel are profound.
6. Israel is family. In going to Israel with my children, I wanted to set the scene that Israel is more than a backdrop for a one-off family trip—it is a place where I hope they will return, with me and other family members and friends, to learn, to travel, and to grow. I took a picture of them in front of the Western Wall and told them, “Every time you come here, you stand right here and take a picture of yourself, so that you will see how the stones don’t change and how you do.” And when they take those pictures, they will be able to frame them next to the pictures of their own mother standing in the same spot as a 13-year-old, as a 16-year-old, etc.
And last, and certainly least:
7. Nobody will miss your party. Look, I am a huge proponent of celebrating simchas. But not a single person has said to me, “You know, I feel bad you decided to go to Israel instead of having a party. I really missed the opportunity to look at you in an expensive dress and shout over a DJ as I eat elaborate hors d’oeuvres while drinking themed cocktails.” And I didn’t miss it either. While I love celebrating with my friends at their parties, I have to say that I felt relieved to not have had to think or worry about my own. The weeks go by and my son goes to several parties like this a month. I am not sure he will really be able to distinguish one from another when all is said and done—and when he is, it is usually because the spending was so extreme. At the end of the day, I don’t want to impress my friends and neighbors—I want to impress upon my son what it means to be part of the Jewish people. And for that goal, this trip was a great success.