Looking to plan a mixed or egalitarian bar or bat mitzvah near the Kotel in Jerusalem? As you may know, this is not possible at the main area of the Western Wall itself. Since the Israeli government ceded effective control over this area to Rabbinic authorities many years ago, the Kotel is divided into separate areas for men and women, with a barrier (a Mechitza). Women are not even permitted to sing or read from the Torah on the women's side. In fact, some women have been arrested for "disturbing the peace" for violating this prohibition.
There is an alternative. The Israeli Supreme Court acceded to a petition brought before it to allow egalitarian prayer at the Southern Wall in an area known as the Robinson's Arch, which is part of the Davidson Center. The entrance to this area is just before the Kotel. Thousands of Conservative, Reform and other liberal Jews conduct bar and bat mitzvah services annually at this location and have found it to be quite a spiritually moving location.
I have now attended at least 5 or 6 of these ceremonies, some as the parent of the bar or bat mitzvah and I thought I would put together a few pointers for those looking to arrange a simcha here.
Bar or Bat Mitzvahs are generally conducted on Mondays or Thursdays at this site since those are the days on which the Torah is read. I do not believe that the Center offers the option of Shabbat celebrations though this may be something that one could look into.
Conducting a Simcha at this location (as with planning many other events in Israel) requires very careful attention to quite a number of small details. One way of doing this is to use an experienced Israeli Rabbi, tour guide or other facilitator who can look after all of these matters. Just make sure that it is someone who has done this many times and has it down to a science.
If you decide to try to plan it yourself, the first step is to arrange a permission certificate ("Ishur") well in advance with the Masorti Movement in Israel which administers the site. You can contact them at email@example.com. They do not charge a fee for the booking but encourage a donation. With an Ishur, you will get access to a Torah scroll, Siddurim (prayer books) and a small table for the Torah. You will get a box of Siddurim but they will not all necessarily be the same. The Center supplies a mixture of "V'ani Tefilati," "Rinat Yisrael" and "Sim Shalom" prayer books. If the starting time is before 8:45 a.m. (sharp), no additional admission fee is required unless the guests would like to take a tour of the Center. This can be a great activity, especially with a knowledgeable tour guide, but is not required. If your guests are late (even by a minute or two), full admission will be required.
Services conducted at the Davidson Center can be more peaceful, secluded and controlled than those at the Western Wall, as well as being inclusive of all the participants. However, during busy season, especially during parts of the summer, there can be three celebrations occurring at the same time, in three consecutive one hour slots. If your simcha is one of the first two of the day, you will have to pay careful attention to timing. No music, drums, shofars or other instruments are permitted at the Center and food is strictly prohibited. In the summer, you can hear other bar-mitzvah groups being escorted to the Western Wall with drums and shofars. This can be one of the distractions but a fascinating one.
Access to the site, which is down a number of stone steps, can be challenging for seniors and others with any kind of physical limitations. There is an elevator at the far end but it may or may not be working at any given time. There is no seating at the site. You can bring folding chairs or you can find some seating on the rocks though the rock seating is certainly not ideal for anyone who might require a comfortable chair.
In the summer, it can become quite hot, particularly after 9 a.m., so make sure to bring hats, water and sun tan lotion for everyone.
One of the real challenges is transporation to and from the site. Traffic is closed to most private vehicles in and around the Old City of Jerusalem and finding parking is extremely difficult. Generally, the best option is to arrange bus service to and from the site. However, you must use an experienced driver who routinely handles this route and knows exactly where and when the guests and participants can be dropped off. If you must drive, you should consider parking at the restaurant or some other nearby location and taking a cab to the Davidson Center entrance.
There are many options available for training a bar or bat mitzvah student. For those using an Israeli Rabbi to conduct the service, he or she may offer internet based training for guests from outside of Israel or, of course, personal training in Israel. Otherwise, a bar or bat mitzvah student can train with any teacher that his or her local Rabbi or other reference source might suggest. In Israel, students can often train with knowledgeable high school students (at a fairly reasonable hourly rate) or of course, there are many Rabbis who have steady streams of students.
Since the Davidson Center area is somewhat less formal than the Kotel, ceremonies can be tailored to suit individual requirements. The Bar or Bat Mitzvah student can conduct some or all of the Shacharit service, depending on his or her capabilities and can read some or all of the week's Torah readings (which are usually quite short during the week). Bar and Bat Mitzvah students often prepare divrei Torah (short talks about the week's Torah portion) to deliver during the ceremony.
Following the service, there are a number of options. Some families opt to arrange a tour of the Davidson Center itself, the nearby tunnels at the City of David or the tunnels behind the Kotel. These tours can be really fascinating and are best arranged with a knowledeable tour guide. They must be booked far in advance - especially the tour of the tunnels behind the Kotel which leads to some of Jerusalem's most incredible archeological sites.
Some families also decide to take pictures at the main plaza part of the Kotel itself, where mixed photos are permissible. Bear in mind, that you must pass through airport style security to get to the Kotel area. During busy times, this can take a half hour or so. If your event is in the summer time, it will get very hot, especially if you have also included a tour of the Davidson Center or one of the other sites before stopping at the Kotel. Despite all the cautions, these pictures may turn out to be some of your best photos.
Most families try to arrange a celebratory meal after the function. Sometimes this is arranged right after the bar or bat mitzvah and without any touring and other times it is arranged after tours of the sites and photo opportunities at the Kotel. Either way, you will need to plan this carefully with the bus driver (whose cell phone number you must have). One of the hardest logistical parts of these affairs is arranging the transportation for the guests from the bar/bat mitzvah to the restaurant.
There are a few restaurants that are within walking distance of the Kotel. These are often booked quite far in advance, may still require difficult walks in hot weather conditions and may be quite pricey for the menu and food quality.
Jerusalem has many other great catering options. I have been to bar and bat mitzvah celebrations at Beit Tikoh, Te'enim, Taverna and Terrasa all of which offer kosher dairy menus and all of which were a reasonably short bus ride from the Kotel. At one bat mitzvah, the Kotel drop off and pick up area was so crowded that the guests had to walk from the Davidson Center to Te'enim, which took about 40 minutes. Trying to arrange a bar or bat mitzvah during Pesach or Sukkot can create huge logistical challanges since these are some of the busiest times at the Old City.
There are also quite a number of kosher meat restaurants available within a reasonable distance, though listing and evaluating all of the restaurants would require a few additional blog entries.
Overall the Davidson Center is a great place for a bar or bat mitzvah for families looking to conduct their prayer service together, include everyone and still be at a holy and religiously significant site. It does however require careful, detail oriented planning with the help of someone who knows how to manoeuvre through Israeli ways of doing things.