By Talya Adler
A very special Bnei-Mitzvah celebration
If you have had the pleasure of visiting Masada, you probably remember waking up at dawn to hike its steep cliff or perhaps you recall the dramatic story of its former inhabitants. For OU Israel Free Spirit: Birthright Israel participants, Masada will be remembered as the place of a moving Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony in which many participants choose a Hebrew name for themselves and thus solidify their Jewish identity and unity with Jewish people.
“Most of us who had a Bar Mitzvah at 13 years old didn’t actually know what the true meaning of a Bar Mitzvah is,” said one participant. “I think that this trip has helped me grow as a person and understand what it actually is.” This sentiment exemplifies exactly what the Bar/Bat Mitzvah program aims to achieve, allowing young Jewish adults from the Diaspora – often without any meaningful connection to their Jewish roots – to reconnect.
“This Bar Mitzvah is not a traditional Bar Mitzvah,” explained OU Israel’s Menachem Persoff who founded the Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony and has been running them for 12 years. “Nobody is asked to read from the Torah. Instead, we ask the participants to step out in the middle of a very intensive program to ask themselves, ‘Where have I come from and where am I going?’ In place of a traditional ceremony, participants stand up in front of their peers and declare their Hebrew name aloud, often accompanied by an explanation of the significance of that name and how they came upon it”.
Yael Tamari, Israel Director of OU Israel Free Spirit added, “The Bnei Mitzvah ceremony on Birthright Israel is an opportunity for our participants to consider and articulate their sense of commitment to their own Jewish future. Indeed, our entire motif on OU Israel Free Spirit is a call for action. Our participants identify as Jewish by joining the trip and then the trip itself is a platform for them to learn something more about that identity. It poses a difficult, yet encouraging question to them – What would they like to choose to DO about it?”
What’s in a name?
“I actually forgot my Hebrew name for many years,” said another participant. “I was named after my grandfather Chaim, which means life, and the way I interpret it is that life is special, priceless. One of my favorite artists said that we are all born with energy. Some have a lot of energy; others have a little energy. But it’s about what you do with this energy that’s so special about life.”
“The groups that you have are a cross section of American Jewish life,” said Persoff. You have broken families, mixed families… Some participants declare that they have never had a connection to Jewish culture, never had Jewish friends, and now they have a Jewish family. The goal is to have the young men and women process their Jewish journey and what they want to do with it.”
The magic of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony begins days before the ceremony itself, when Persoff goes to visit the group to discuss the option of participating in the ceremony. Participants then have a few days to consider the significance of their Jewish identity and to select a Hebrew name for themselves. Some choose to use or reaccept their given Hebrew name. Others (who for the most part do not have a Hebrew name) choose to take on a brand new name, often consulting with friends, family, and Birthright Israel staff until they find a name that represents their essence and truly reflects who they are.
The impact of this program and Birthright Israel in general cannot be understated. In choosing a Hebrew name many participants elect to become more involved in their Jewish communities at home, or choose to advocate on behalf of Israel on campus. Several participants have declared their interest in studying more about Judaism, and some even choose to join the IDF as lone soldiers or to make Aliyah. To many, it is the apex of a life-changing journey.
The Israel Free Spirit Bar/Bat Mitzvah traditionally takes place in Masada’s Beit Midrash. In the moments before the ceremony, the Beit Midrash stands quiet and empty offering a breathtaking view of the desert and Dead Sea. Suddenly the silence is shattered by song and dance as members of this Israel Free Spirit “Soul Trek” group are escorted into the Beit Midrash to the tune of “Haveynu Shalom Aleichem.” They sing and dance for several minutes before forming a circle to hear an introductory speech by ceremony leader Kenny Kadosh, on the significance of the desert and how it speaks to the essence of one’s identity. Then, together the group chants the blessing on the Torah while considering the impact of being part of the Chosen people.
Their very own song
Then, one by one, members of the group stood up and proudly declared their Jewish name in front of their friends. “I wanted to learn more about my mother’s Hebrew name. My mother passed away when I was four years old, and that’s been very impactful on my life,” said another participant in a moving moment upon taking her new name. “She converted to Judaism before I was born, and her Hebrew name was Sara. While I have been here I have learned that Sara was the mother of all mothers, and a woman who lived every day fully, and everything that I’ve been told about my mother tells me that her name truly is Sara, I want to honor her and take on that name.”
After explaining why they chose their name, each participant received a gift along with a few extra words of explanation about their name from the ceremony leader. With their new Jewish identities proclaimed, the group once again broke into song, but this was not any regular song. The group had worked together to write and produce a brand new song about celebrating their Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Four members of the group stood at the center, leading the singing and strumming the guitar. The remainder of the group joined in, clapping and adding to the rhythm with small shakers. The singing and swaying together continued for several minutes, finally culminating with a round of applause as friends reached out to one another to offer hugs and congratulations to the newly named Bnei Mitzvah.
As the group exited the Beit Midrash and began their descent from Masada, it was clear that this location would be remembered for more than a beautiful view, intense hike or dramatic story. To the Israel Free Spirit Bar/Bat Mitzvah participants, the path from Masada marked the first step of a new Jewish life and identity.