Synagogue featured in story about destination bar mitzvahs

     Seeking Sacred Destinations
     Jewish Families Increasingly Travel for Bar Mitzvah Ritual to Escape Lavish Parties at Home
     
     By Lois K. Solomon
     South Florida Sun-Sentinel
     Saturday, December 2, 2006
     
     
     FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Southern Florida's bar mitzvah party overkill is spurring some parents to pack up and take their teenagers to spots promising a more understated celebration.
     
     St. Thomas, Curacao, Europe and even Wyoming are great vacation locations, but they also have emerged as bar mitzvah destinations for families seeking a spiritual escape amid the excess often flaunted at many post-ceremony parties.
     
     Brooke Kaplan, 12, and her brother, Alex, 13, who had their b'nai mitzvah (the Hebrew plural for the ceremony for boys and girls) at the same time, left for their coming-of-age ceremony in the historic synagogue of St. Thomas in the Caribbean. Their parents, Jonathan and Nina Kaplan, of Boca Raton, Fla., sought a spiritual alternative to the local b'nai mitzvah scene and found it in the 210-year-old Virgin Islands congregation, founded by Sephardic Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.
     
     "It will be a lot shorter and a lot less pressure," Brooke, a seventh-grader at North Broward Preparatory School, said before the trip this fall. "It would have been good to have my friends there, but it definitely will be fun and different."
     
     Although families have long celebrated these religious ceremonies in Israel, some alternatives are emerging during a time of intermittent danger in the Holy Land.
     
     St. Thomas, where Rabbi Arthur Starr leads the Congregation of Blessing and Peace and Loving Deeds, is becoming increasingly popular, not only for b'nai mitzvah but also for Jewish weddings and other life-cycle events. Starr said he did about three bar mitzvah ceremonies a year when he started in 2002. Now, he performs about 25 a year for mainland Americans.
     
     "This synagogue screams out at you in a very spiritual way," said Starr, who led a congregation in New Hampshire for 31 years.
     
     With its sand-covered floor, white walls, mahogany pews and ceiling fans, the synagogue connects visitors to the Sephardic Jews who founded it in 1796, when there were fewer than a half-dozen Jewish families on the island. Today there are about 400.
     
     The allure of the St. Thomas synagogue continues to astound Starr, but he said the congregation welcomes mainland Jews for life-cycle events.
     
     Starr said mainland Jews come for three reasons: They seek a meaningful ceremony in a new environment; an uncomfortable divorce discourages the family from celebrating at home; or the family does not want to or can't afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars on an elaborate gala.
     
     These parties can cost more than $40,000, said Linzi Etzion, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based bar mitzvah planner. She said the celebrations often resemble the party in the film "Keeping Up With the Steins." In the movie, the theme is the Titanic, complete with a cruise ship wheeled into the banquet hall with the bar mitzvah boy aboard.
     
     But that's not the plan for the Schapiro family, of Parkland, Fla., who are planning a Jackson, Wyo., bat mitzvah for daughter Rachel in 2008.
     
     "When you're there, you look at the mountains and realize how beautiful our country is and how small we are as people," said Debbi Schapiro.
     
     A Jewish "spiritual leader" trained by rabbis will conduct the ceremony at Spring Creek Ranch, a resort with views of the Teton Mountain Range. Schapiro agreed to fly 10 of Rachel's friends to Wyoming.
     
     Some synagogues are working to rein in the obsession with expensive celebrations. At Congregation B'nai Israel in Boca Raton, leaders emphasize the religious service, not the party, Rabbi Robert A. Silvers said. They also talked to the temple caterer about appropriate party themes.
     
     Silvers said he welcomes the trend of families searching for more spiritual b'nai mitzvah. But he said it is also important for Jews to celebrate with their community so they have friends and family to reinforce their memories after the event."I wouldn't discourage people from going to these locations," Silvers said, "but they need to celebrate here, too, with their community. It's not either-or."
     
     Raphi Bloom, chief executive officer of totallyjewishtravel.com, said he receives inquiries about b'nai mitzvahs in the ancient synagogues of Toledo, Spain; the Arch of Titus in Rome; and the Old-New Synagogue in Prague.
     
     "There is a poignancy to going to a place where there has been a rebirth and renewal," Bloom said. "After the Holocaust, people feel an emotional link to these places."
     
     The 274-year-old Sephardic synagogue on the island of Curacao, north of Venezuela, also fields frequent inquiries about American b'nai mitzvah. Cantor Avery Tracht, who leads Synagogue Mikv√© Israel-Emanuel, said 11 ceremonies are planned for the next year.
     
     Tracht said students must have an American bar mitzvah tutor. He speaks frequently to the teenagers and sends them a CD of the Torah chapter they must chant in Hebrew with the Portuguese-Sephardic tropes, symbols that indicate how a word is to be chanted, a challenge for many Americans who learn the Eastern European style of Torah reading.
     
     Nina Kaplan said her children learned the meaning behind their Torah chapters as well as the rich history of St. Thomas's Jewish community.
     
     "This is not rent-a-rabbi," Kaplan said. "We wanted to do something that would have significance for our children, that they would always remember. We wanted them to have b'nai mitzvahs that were about the religion."