A couple of months ago, I had the great pleasure of spending eight days in Israel with my second daughter Tehilloh, who is due to celebrate her batmitzvah at the end of June. The trip, her first to Israel, was her batmitzvah present from my wife and me.
Like other parents, my wife and I are keen to devise meaningful ways for our children to mark their transition into Jewish adulthood. Our primary concern is that Tehilloh understands that her batmitzvah is a key opportunity for her to deepen her connection with God and Judaism, strengthen her identification with and love for the Jewish people, and start to form mature and sensitive Jewish aspirations of her own.
We are certain that developing keen Israel-awareness is an important objective for Tehilloh and our other children. I have the privilege of visiting Israel often, but my wife gets there only periodically and our children not at all. And since my children are blessed to have grown up in the comfort of Golders Green, where every aspect of their religious lives is catered for, it is a challenge to ensure that our children remain aware that Israel is the locus of all Jewish religious, national and political ambitions.
How does one convey to children living in a malchut shel chessed - a country that is mostly peaceful and sensitive to their religion and culture - that Jewish life is meant to be lived in Israel? How does one communicate the sense that the heart of the Jewish people beats not in Golders Green or Brooklyn, but in the Holy City of Jerusalem? And how does one excite happy, settled, diaspora children about the modern miracle of the return to the Land, or teach them to identify with Israel's failings and celebrate her successes?
We try to encourage each of our children to sense the importance of the transition into Jewish adulthood by taking them on a private, serious tour of Israel as the focal part of their celebration. There is nothing especially creative or innovative here - just a low-budget, intensive Israel-experience. I took my eldest daughter on a similar trip three years ago and in due course, God (and finances) willing, either my wife or I plan to take each of our other children on a similar special tour.
During the trip (guided by Tehilloh's interests), we explored Jerusalem, culminating with Shabbat in the Old City, headed north to the Kinneret, Tiberias and Safed, drove south to discover Ein Gedi and climb Masada, visited friends, sampled restaurants, shopped in the shuk, visited a world-famous rabbi and devoted a morning to volunteering at a soup kitchen.
But apart from seeing key places of religious and historical interest, I was keen that Tehilloh should have a fantastic time absorbing the unique atmosphere of Israel, its sounds, odours, diversity of people and its deep, incomparable Jewishness.
And judging by her enthusiastic response, her display of photos and her list of favourites (the winner: floating in the Dead Sea; second: kabbalat Shabbat at the Kotel), Tehilloh is gradually getting the "Israel bug", that will influence her dreams and aspirations, just as my wife and I did years ago. It is probably obvious that I was as excited as Tehilloh about the trip, not least for the unprecedented opportunity to spend eight whole days of private time together, allowing us to talk and share ideas in an unpressured environment.
The Israel trip is the "big" experience, and as such, the rest of the simchah will be modest, a dinner at home for family and friends at which Tehilloh will speak, and a se'udah shlishit graciously hosted by our community.
I feel that a degree of creativity would greatly enhance many bar- and batmitzvah celebrations. While some innovative educational programmes have developed over the last few years, especially for young women, the semachot themselves are often extravagant and empty.
In some circles, sumptuous parties, barely distinguishable from weddings, have become de rigueur, and while I am not in the business of telling people how to spend their money, I have noticed that there is often an inverse correlation between expenditure and meaning. And despite difficult financial times, social pressure may mean that some feel compelled to host a lavish affair, even when they cannot actually afford it.
In a privileged world in which numerous young people have already been exposed to the wonders of international travel and the riches of world culture, many families are struggling to find a meaningful way to mark their children's transition into adulthood. I advise my congregants that however they choose to mark the occasion, it is vital that the celebration reflects and empowers the fulfilment of their Jewish aspirations for their children. By these criteria, most semachot miss the mark by a long way.
As the proud parents of Tehilloh (and several other beautiful Belovskis), my wife and I feel that the inspirational power of a private trip to Israel, followed by a small-scale celebration at home, strikes the right balance.
When you next plan a simchah, please ignore societal norms and devote your energies to creating a lasting and meaningful experience that will transform your child's life and expand their Jewish horizons.