Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Bar Mitzvah Experience at the Kotel

We attended a very special Bar Mitzvah yesterday – one of those events that reminds us how lucky we are to be in Israel – and have the chance to celebrate this type of occasion here.

The Bar Mitzvah was organized and run by Liran Levi – an Israeli with a company that specializes in conducting Bar/Bat Mitzvah trips to Jerusalem. Liran, who during his army service was in an elite combat unit, is also a trained cantor, tour guide and teacher. His told us that his goal (with the help of his four person crew) was to provide a unique, once in a lifetime experience – a day filled with happiness and excitement for the bar-mitzvah boy – and I have to say he met the goal.

We started out in Ra’anana – getting on a full sized bus around 8 a.m. The bus stopped at a few different points on the way to Jerusalem – picking up waiting friends and family members to join in the festivities. Though we had a bit of rain along the way – and some fairly nasty traffic jams – everyone was optimistic that things would still work out well.

Our first stop was Neve Shalom/Wahat Al Salam (“Oasis of Peace” – in Hebrew and Arabic) – a unique Israeli settlement – dedicated to the coexistence of Jews and Arabs in Israel. People from different backgrounds live there (www.nswas.com). We were there for a breakfast along the way – a fairly quick stop – but with enough time for bourekas, salad and coffee – before starting the real part of our trip.

As we left Neve Shalom, the festivities began. Liran and his crew turned on the speaker system – and pulled out Middle Eastern drums. For the next 40 minutes or so – the bus became a mixture of a party – and a Jerusalem tour. Liran gave explanations about the history of Jerusalem – from ancient times until today. He challenged the guests with interesting questions. But he also got people singing – and – yes – dancing on the bus. Sounds crazy - but it was a riot. He went up and down the aisles with the microphone finding people willing to take a turn singing. He had the bar mitzvah boy and his parents at the front of the bus jumping up and down (not during the sharp turns) – and he had the drummer banging away to keep the beat. Other guests were dancing in the aisles – as the bus drove up through the mountains towards Jerusalem.

As we got closer – the excitement level continued to increase. There was a unique sense of mission – and history. We were told all about the modern history of Jerusalem. Liran, of course, highlighted the fact that Jordan had held the Old City of Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967 – and Jews simply weren’t allowed to visit the Jewish religious sites during those years. Since 1967 – Israel has reunited Jerusalem – and ensured full access to the various religious sites – not only for Jews but for Christians and Muslims as well – to their holy sites.

The bus let us off at one of the gates to the walled Old City of Jerusalem. The crew pulled out the Shofars (rams horns), took the drums – and put up a mini Chuppah (overhead canopy) – held up by four guests over the bar mitzvah boy’s head – for a procession from the gate to the Kotel – the western wall. By now it was raining – but that didn’t really seem to bother anyone.

As we began walking through the old City, our guide led us in singing a whole series of songs about Jerusalem as well as other traditional Hebrew melodies. The amazing thing was that people who were walking by – entirely unrelated to the affair – joined us in singing and dancing. One small group of about 8 or 10 – joined our group and everyone started dancing a Hora. Some of the passers-by were religious – and probably Israelis. Others were clearly tourists – some secular Jews – some not Jewish. It didn’t matter. Liran invited people to join the dancing – and many did. This really got crazy when we ran into a Birthright type group – of about 100 or so – young adults – 18-23 – doing their own tour of Jerusalem. Liran went over to them and started signing – and invited them to join us. About ½ the group did – and before you know it – we had a huge group – singing and dancing together – even putting the Bar Mitzvah boy high up in the air.

We continued along towards the Kotel – stopping for explanations of different parts of the Old City.

By now it was still raining – so we had to have the Bar Mitzvah ceremony itself – in the enclosed area of the Western Wall – at the end of the Men’s section. We went inside – where there are a series of wooden Arks – housing a variety of Torah Scrolls – suitable for different types of congregations. The women’s section is up in the balcony – behind one-way glass. So the women could watch everything taking place – but the men couldn’t see the women. To ensure that they could hear everything – the women were all given wireless headphones – and the bar mitzvah boy was given a microphone. This is certainly not ideal for families used to attending Conservative or Reformed Synagogues – with mixed seating – but it is par for the course for an Orthodox Synagogue.

Since it was now afternoon (too late for the morning service – Shacharit) – there was a very abbreviated service – a chance for the Bar Mitzvah boy and his father to put on Tefillin – and the main event – the reading of the Torah by the Bar Mitzvah boy. The service was reasonably quick – the Bar Mitzvah boy completed the main part of the day – (that he had spent many months preparing for) and we even had time to squeeze in a full but very fast Minhah (afternoon) service.

After all of that – it was off to have lunch in Emek Refaim, Jeruselem – a new City area lined with galleries, cafes and upscale restaurants. We ate at La Bocca – a Kosher, Latin style restaurant. The food was terrific – a variety of chicken, steak and vegetable dishes – prepared and presented beautifully. Over lunch – the singing and dancing continued – led by Liran and his crew. The music was mostly Israeli religious music – with an Eastern flavour to it – though Liran apparently tries to cater the music to the style that the guests are likely to appreciate. The guests sang along – got up and danced – and generally seemed to have quite a good time. Liran continued to be full of energy – running around trying to involve as many people as he could – in singing, dancing – or at least hand clapping.

When lunch was over – it was time for the bus ride back – and most people were exhausted. But the event was really unique. With the bus rides – the explanations – the singing and dancing – it was really a quintessential Zionist and Jewish experience – with a pilgrimage- like feeling. Travelling together - to the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem – the Western Wall – for a day filled with prayer, song and happiness – and even involving complete strangers along the way in singing and dancing – well – it was quite an experience.

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