This is a recount of our son Eran's Bar Mitzva (BM for short) which we celebrated exactly 2 months ago today (in March 2018). I am writing it mainly for us, as part of the documentation of the celebrations". If this post also helps at least one person who is planning a BM in Israel – I'll be very pleased! This recount will also help us ourselves in 3 years' time when we start planning our youngest son Tomer's BM , as I'm sure that I won't remember all the many many details involved in this "complex operation" unless I don’t write them down.
These were our "givens" when we started planning:
1. The invitees would only be family and friends who have direct and regular contact with the BM boy himself. Why? Because we ourselves don't really enjoy going to events in which we hardly know the "star" of the event, even if we know and love the parents.
2. We will do a traditional BM – both the tefillin ceremony and the reading of the parasha (aliya latora) at the synagogue. Of course, we made sure that Eran was OK with all this. Luckily, he was.
3. The tefillin ceremony will be held at the Kotel. This was important to us, because we would be having family coming from overseas and we believed this experience would make the ceremony more special and meaningful for them (and of course for us too) than having it at the shul, regardless of our level of religious observance.
4. We will have a balance between "orthodox" elements (my husband's side) and "reform" elements (my side). Why? As we believe in equality and aim to have "shlom bait" as much as possible…
5. Staying sane and within budget. While the "sane" part of the sentence is a matter of opinion, I am glad to say we stayed well within the budget we set. Want to know how much it all cost? Scroll down to the end….
With these 5 guidelines in mind, during the summer break of 2017, we started with the preliminary, "desk" research:
checked when the Hebrew date of Eran's birthday would occur and how far it'd be from Passover.
read articles and watched clips online about BM's at the Kotel (most of the material was commercial or outdated).
interrogated friends who'd celebrated BM's recently.
We also met with the rabbi in charge of the Bar Mitzva project in our home town of Hod Hasharon and what he explained was of utmost importance, logistics-wise – that if it doesn't work out, it's OK to set the date of the aliya latora to any other Saturday, as long as it's after his official date, and that from that point, it makes no difference in which order we do the 2 ceremonies. Despite this, we really wanted to try and organize it so that the service does take place on the Saturday of his birth parasha (Vayakhel-Pekudei ויקהל פקודי). As most of my immediate family live overseas, the first thing we did was to inform them about the preferred date and ensure that they could come. Fortunately, all my siblings said "yes" to our preferred date (my brother was unable to come over with his all troop but did come with his almost 13 years old son). Once the date was confirmed – we started working. Really hard. For 9 months almost.
The Jerusalem leg of the Festivities
The desk research wasn't enough for me and I was having trouble imagining the Kotel part in my head. Therefore, in August, 8 months before the "due date", we took a day off and traveled to Jerusalem with the kids, on a Monday, to do the first of two "reconnaissance" tours we eventually did before the BM. The main aim was to explore the not-so-well-known Davidson Centre, which contains in its grounds (called the Archaeological Park) the continuation of the Western Wall, and in which it's possible to do the tefillin ceremony without the separation between men and women (refer guidelines 3 & 4 above). We arrived there unannounced, but they let us in when we explained that we were on a scouting trip. We received all the explanations from the site manager who was really kind and friendly (I filmed most of it instead of taking notes - this was very useful). We even observed (from a distance) a BM ceremony which was taking place there:
The decision was taken – this is where we will do the tefillin ceremony!
Outcome and Tips:
1. The ceremony itself. We had a beautiful ceremony, with lots of space, privacy, peace and quiet (except the drum rolls and singing from the other celebrations taking place outside the Park that could be heard down to where we were). My husband is quite observant, lays tefillin every morning, so he led the service himself, thus we had no need to hire a rabbi to accompany us. To make the event more personal, I prepared "brachot" (blessings) for the BM boy, which I handed to each of the kids to read out loud after the official ceremony. My mom made a very special gesture and gave Eran a copy of my late dad's BM certificate. Her, my husband and I made short impromptu speeches (mainly thanking everyone for coming) and then we had to wrap up as our hour was up and the next BM party was waiting patiently for the spot, Torah and table.
2. Mixed worship. Doing the ceremony in the grounds of the Park requires advanced booking and paying a small entrance fee per head. There is also another reform/ masorti option (i.e. mixed gender worship) nearby, which is the balcony overlooking the Archaeological Park. This area, called Ezrat Israel, is open for anyone to enter, and the service there is free, but here too one should pre-book a table and Torah book (this is done through the Masorti Movement site). The downside of this option is that it might get very crowded (as it's free & open) and also that it's further from the Wall itself. We chose the paid route, as we wanted as much privacy as possible. Specifically, we chose to do the ceremony opposite Robinson Arch (the closest to the Wall one can get in that area). The entrance fee per person is quite negligible (see point 13 below). Just make sure to book your "spot" well in advance!
3. Weather. As it would take place in March, we knew the weather would be pleasant (we actually worried it might rain!). And indeed it was – actually it was quite hot! What we didn't think about was the wind. And boy oh boy was it windy! The wind helped to alleviate the heat, but played havoc with the Kippot. So tip – throw some hairclips in your "kotel bag" as well as sunscreen (and hats! – which we did have).
4. Torah & table. Those who do the ceremony where we did, get the spot for themselves for 1 hour. The booking includes a table and a Torah book (which you need to go get yourselves from inside so tip! Give 2 people the responsibility to fetch and return them as they are quite heavy).
5. Candy. No candy is allowed inside the Park area, as is food or drink. We took soap bubble to give the kids to blow at Eran instead but unfortunately, I forgot about it, in the midst of all the emotions/being in charge of so many logistic details.
6. Refreshments. If one does want to bring food, one can book a table and chairs on a balcony on top of the Centre itself, at extra cost of course, and bring food/catering (see also point 14 below).
7. If you have elderly guests, I would also ask the place for a couple of chairs as it might not be comfortable for them to sit on the stone stairs there.
8. Canopy. if you are planning to do the BM in summer, I'd recommend enquiring regarding a canopy/sun umbrellas (we didn’t have one but maybe it's because our event took place while it was still winter, officially).
9. Getting to the Kotel. One of our biggest challenges was this issue and specifically parking there, which is quite impossible, especially if you want to avoid the long walk from the Mamila parking area or getting a huge parking fine in the area close to the kotel. On our second recon tour (in Jan 2018) we found a solution to this challenge: it turns out that there is a free shuttle service from the First Station to the Dung Gate (which is the closest gate to the Kotel), as well as back. It runs every 20 mins from the First Station and each minibus can take about 20 people. On the way to the kotel, this solution worked perfectly for us: we made the First Station the meeting (and parking) point, as half the guests arrived from outside Jerusalem that morning. We all got to the Kotel in time, in about 2 minibuses, as our party consisted of only about 30 people. The problem with this solution revealed itself on the way back: the wait for the arrival of each shuttle is about 30 minutes, and as we were waiting at lunchtime, it was quite hot and there were quite a few other people waiting with us and even ahead of us, so even when the shuttle finally arrived, most of us couldn't get on it. There was no way we could all wait another 30 minutes like that, so we found a creative solution - which I can't detail here….. But my tip is to book transport ahead at least for the way back (depending of course on what the rest of your plans are, how many of you there are, budget etc).
10. Parking at the First Station is relatively cheap (about 17 NIS for the whole day) if you choose all-day parking in your parking App.
11. Time of ceremony. If you have guests coming from various locations, don’t book the place for too early. Allow enough time for late comers. We did ours at 10:00, and that was perfect.
12. Sidurim. We brought a bagful of our own siddurim with us. It's quite heavy so bring the minimum number necessary. Inquire ahead if the location provides some.
13. Extra activity after ceremony. We wanted to throw in some culture to the festivities, so right after the tefillin ceremony we booked a guided tour of the City of David. Initially we wanted to do the Kotel Tunnels tour but it was already fully booked for the date we booked the tefillin ceremony (even though I tried booking it 4 months in advance!). So – tip! – book the tour well in advance or take a different tour like we did. We walked to the City of David by foot from the Kotel area – a matter of about 10 minutes' walk (it takes less normally but as it got quite crowded by the time we finished at the Kotel, it took long for our party of about 30 to wade its way through the celebrating crowds). The highlight of the tour was the walk through the narrow (and cool!) passages of the old drainage system under the ruins of Givati Parking. And of course – advise your guests to wear comfy walking shoes, especially the ladies!
The City of David has lockers (costs 20 NIS for the largest locker) where we left most of our "equipment" during the time of the tour. Don't forget to have cash ready for tipping the guide. Cost of tour – depends on the type of tour you take and whether or not you require a guide, but generally speaking the fees are reasonable. We saved a bit of money as, while chit-chatting to the sales rep on the phone, I mentioned to her that we are having the BM at the Davidson Centre grounds, so she suggested taking a tour which ends at the Davidson Centre, thus making it unnecessary to pay separately for the entrance to the Centre. As we planned to do things the other way around – first ceremony, then tour – I popped out of the shuttle next to the City of David (on the way to the Dung Gate), payed for and got the tickets, and walked up to the Davidson Centre while the guests waited there (a matter of 5 minutes walk – mostly uphill though! Thank heavens I was wearing sensible shoes!!). But even if you don't do this the way we did, the entrance fees to Davidson Centre are pretty low per head (13-29 NIS, depending on size of group and ages of guests).
14. Goodie Bags. We gave each of our guests a string non-woven fabric bag containing a kippa, a 500 ml bottle of water, a couple of snacks and chocolate bars. This was very important, especially the water and especially for the kids (the adults hardly touched the snacks). Of course, chocolates should be avoided outdoors in summer in Israel. The snacks were not eaten during the Tefillin ceremony of course.
15. Lunch. After the activities at the Old City, we invited all the guest for lunch at Landwer Café in the First Station. We chose this restaurant for its convenient location (the First Station being our starting and ending point for the Old City activities), extensive and yummy and sensibly priced menu, friendly manager and plenty of space for the young cousins to run around after the meal.
16. Overnight in Jerusalem. All my family members (most of whom arrived from overseas especially for the festivities) plus my BFF who joined us from the UK, spent the Wednesday night before the ceremony in Jerusalem. We chose to do this as we wanted to minimize the pressure in the morning before the ceremony - there are often traffic jams at the entrance to Jerusalem and we didn't want to have to get up at 5 am to leave from Hod Hasharon at 6 am…. We stayed at the picturesque Villa Brown boutique hotel, in the Russian Compound area, a 15 minute walk from the Machaneh Yehuda market.
We didn't book a restaurant for dinner as we initially thought we could just order in a pizza, but after we all settled in in the hotel, it turned out everyone was starving. So we walked in the direction of the Shuk, innocently thinking it'd be easy to find a free table for 14 in a good restaurant on a Wednesday night, without waiting. It wasn't of course, but we decided that the Hatzot restaurant was well worth the wait, which happily it was.
17. Getting to & from Jerusalem. This was another exercise in logistics, as there were 11 of us (including 3 young kids) travelling from home on Wednesday and two more back the next day, and our cars only fit 5 people max each. We solved this by borrowing a seven-seater from a friend, which I drove, and renting another seven-seater from a rental company, which my husband drove. We got a good deal on the rental car, but in order to keep the cost from doubling, we had to get the car back to the rental office before 18:00 (in the afternoon after the ceremony in the morning) which was their closing hour as well as about 24 hours after the rental hour the day before. My husband managed to do this, I have no idea how, after even dropping his passengers and luggage home on the way. I arrived to pick him up almost an hour later, after taking quite a detour while exiting Jerusalem (not my fault – the main exit was blocked by Haredi protestors!) the pressure of which caused me to forget that the car I was driving had free toll road passage. The rest of the (not too many) guests who joined us in Jerusalem, arrived from different parts of the country, in their own cars. The most complicated part here was finding a way to get 5 of Eran's friends to Jerusalem (and on a school day!). Here, one of the fathers of the boys offered to bring them, taking a day off work for that. We were most grateful for his generosity and his presence contributed to the day (and he even "saved the day" when we encountered a little glitch after the kotel....).
18. Photography. Fortunately both my sisters Nirit and Yaara are talented amateur photographers. Despite the fact that Nirit has 3 young (and amazing) kids around and on her at any given minute, she and Ya'ara took amazing and emotive photos and videos throughout the events (most of the pics in this post are theirs). Tip: get everyone to send you immediately any picture they took with their smartphones (I'm still chasing some...).
19. Paper and pencils. I envisioned that some of the guests would want to take advantage of the fact that we were at the Western Wall and stick notes in it, so I remembered at the last minute to take from home memo papers and Ikea pencils which I handed to anyone who wanted to write notes. This small gesture was much appreciated.
The CLOSE TO HOME leg of the Festivities
While the Jerusalem leg was much more complicated logistically, we didn’t neglect the part close to home, to which were invited mainly our son's friends as well as a couple family members and close friends – all people that are involved in our son's life. This part took place on Saturday and included the service at the synagogue followed by a luncheon at....a Beer Garden!
we chose the synagogue after doing a "shul round" in September, in the shuls close to our house, with preference to Sepharadic Synagogues, per my husband's request. My mom and I rose early on a couple of Saturdays and attended a few minutes of the services in each. I paid close attention to details such as "the decor", the cleanliness, what the women's gallery looks like, and even how decent the bathrooms are (some were disgusting and this immediately ruled them out). I was told that each synagogue does its own thing re refreshments after the service (some insist on it, some don't) and re the charge for doing the service there. The synagogue we ended up choosing - Peggy Yaron Synagogue - was perfect for us from all aspects - shortish distance from home (3 min drive), pretty, and no insistence on a "bracha", although we did end up bringing some drinks and snacks. Naturally we have no pictures from the service itself, which was lovely (and Eran read his parasha wonderfully!) and not too long, but my sister Nirit filmed there the day before when we went to drop off the drinks. I highly recommend doing this, most people don't and regret it afterwards.
We knew that this could easily become a huge expense item if we didn't choose wisely. We first toyed with the idea of doing it in our building's common room but we realized it would not fit 50 people comfortably and that we'd have to hire catering, which will shoot the price up tremendously. So we were determined to find a restaurant that will give us a decent deal, without compromising on the uniqueness of the place and the food.
We checked out 3-4 restaurants in our area. Some, it turns out, don't do events, and some don't do events on a Saturday lunchtime, and others don't do events for under 100 guests or 10000 NIS. On a whim, we entered the Beer Garden pub at the Sharonim Mall, and were dumbstruck! Not only at how nice the place was, but specifically at how friendly the managers and staff were. And to top that - they were completely willing to accommodate us even though they hadn't done Bar Mitzvas there yet. They quoted us a very decent price, for a very different, quirky type of menu (a fancy "pub lunch"). They offered to close the internal bar area for us, while the external sitting area would remain open as usual. We didn't mind this at all. The internal area was just big enough for our not even 50 guests.
To make 100% sure we were happy with the choice, we had lunch there one Saturday and ate the same menu items that they offered us. The food was extremely yummy!
About a month before the event, I realized we would want to decorate the place a little bit. But here was a challenge - how would we do that, if we were all of us at the synagogue just before that? Solution: we asked the Beer Garden manager if one of his waiters would want to do it, for a nice "tip" of course. Luckily they agreed. We bought lovely ready-made decor (at Fun City) - Happy Birthday chains and gold, blue and yellow balloons, and even a disposable helium inflating kit. We brought everything to the pub a couple of days before the event, and explained to the waiter exactly how and where to place everything.
There are so many other details I could write about, as well as the (few) things that didn't go so smoothly, and about some compromises we needed to do (that's life!!) but I think I'll leave all that for another day/post. All in all it was an awesome week, which sealed what seemed like a "pregnancy" of preparations. I think, hope, that Eran will cherish the memories, the pictures and the mementos from this "rite of passage" occasion.
Other Suppliers/Quick tips:
Kippot - Kipale
Tefilin & Talit - Stam Mehudar
Invites (and thank you's) – designed them myself using PowerPoint
Album - Klika
Movie – courtesy of my sister Nirit.
Maccabi Tel Aviv players (soocer team) BM wishes video - courtesy of my husband who worked very hard to get it.
Family roots book - Grandma Miriam (with my help).
I highly recommend having someone not from the immediate family as your "Lineup Keeper/Operations Manager". It's such an emotional time, that if you try to do everything yourselves on the day itself, you are bound to forget something or at least not enjoy every minute.
Total cost - just under 22000 nis. Including all the outfits, makeup artist, hairdressers, hotel etc.
Things change all the time. So it's best to personally contact all places to find out prices, opening hours, special "rules" etc.
There are many different ways to celebrate a barmitzva. Choose what's right for you (you don't have to do the kotel, you can do aliya latora + tefillin ceremony together on the same day (Monday or Thursday), you can skip the religious part altogether etc).
MAZAL TOV & ENJOY!!