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L’Dor v’Dor: A Multi-Generational Bat Mitzvah Celebration in Israel

By Tova Gilead

The first bat mitzvah celebration in the U.S. was held on March 18, 1922, when Judith Kaplan, the daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement, turned 12.

Sixty-eight years later, in August 1990, Judith Kaplan and her husband Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, along with their daughter Ann, celebrated the bar mitzvah of their grandson Aaron on Masada. They were one of many three-generational families who have travelled to Israel on my tours for a bar and bat mitzvah celebrations.

Now, it was my turn to celebrate!Our family trip to Israel turned out to include not three but four generations, as my mother in-law, Ruth Weiss, at 93, decided to come along for her great-granddaughter’s bat mitzvah. Ruth was born in New Haven in 1915 to immigrant parents who escaped the pogroms in Lithuania and came to the U.S. at the turn of the century. In those days, it was not customary for girls to read from the Torah, and so Ruth never had a bat mitzvah.

Ever since my granddaughter Katie was little, I told her about “Jerusalem of Gold,” playing her the song written by Naomi Shemer and performed for the first time by a young Israeli soldier, Shuli Natan. I promised Katie that when she turned 12, I would take her to Israel to celebrate her bat mitzvah in “Jerusalem of Gold.” The image captivated her, and she counted the years until 2008 when she turned 12.

Katie Keating’s bat mitzvah celebration in Israel was a multi-generational affair. From left to right: Ruth Weiss (great-grandmother), Michael Weiss (grandfather), Tova Weiss (grandmother), Sean Keating (father), Ivy Keating (mother), and Katie Keating (bat mitzvah)

Katie’s bat mitzvah took place at Robinson’s Arch, in the Archeological Garden of Jerusalem, amidst the stones of the Second Temple. The service was moving in both its depth and simplicity. At the end, Rabbi Boyden handed the Torah to great-grandma Ruth, who transferred it to us, the grandparents, then to the parents, and finally to the bat mitzvah girl.

Rabbi Boyden then said: “A multi-generational bat mitzvah ceremony provides a moving opportunity for grandparents, parents and children to join together to mark a unique milestone in the life of the family. Passing the Torah down from generation to generation symbolizes the link between the past, the present, and the future and the place of the bat or bar mitzvah as the next link in the chain of our Jewish heritage that reaches back thousands of years.”

That evening we had a celebration banquet at the King David Hotel, and were thrilled to have Shuli Natan sing Yerushalayim Shel Zahav: “Jerusalem of gold, of bronze and light, I am a violin for all your songs”…

One of the highlights of the trip was the visit to Kfar Kedem in the Galilee. It took us back to biblical times, and we loved riding the donkeys. It was a lot of fun, even for great-grandma Ruth.

On family tours, children come away with a deeper sense of Jewish history and a more profound appreciation for their families. After visiting the Kotel on Friday night and touching the ancient stones, my granddaughter Katie said that she gained an appreciation for the history of Judaism and how to apply Jewish values to her daily life. She still reminisces about her bat mitzvah.

Over the past 30 years, Rabbi Jay Karzen, author of Off The Wall, has seen many multi-generational bar/bat mitzvah events. He told me about one memorable, tearful episode of a Russian family who had come from America to celebrate the first bar mitzvah in the family in many decades.

“In meeting them, I discovered that both the father and grandfather never had a bar mitzvah or aliyah l’Torah,” he recalled. “I suggested that we have a ‘triple’ service with each celebrant having a ceremony to mark their belated bar mitzvah. The 13-year-old celebrant agreed, and it was a most emotional and inspirational ceremony.”

Susan Cutler, a Jewish educator from Wilton who officiates at bar and bat mitzvahs at Robinson’s Arch, notes that in her experience, “The bar and bat mitzvah ceremony is always a poignant event that is especially magical when taking place in Israel. At Robinson’s Arch, among the ancient stones, you feel that you are indeed a living part of Jewish history.”

Susan’s families consistently report that the experience is life-changing, with many of her students eager to return to participate in an Israel trip with peers, such as a teen tour or Birthright trip. Often the experience serves as a beautiful reunion between American and Israeli cousins, together after many years or perhaps meeting for the first time.

Grandparents dream of taking their grandchildren to Israel for a bar or bat mitzvah. Traveling with the extended family is a fun and bonding experience made most meaningful in Israel, where history and family come together.

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