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Going to Israel For A Special Coming of-Age-Celebration

Tell the Schnalls' story the next time anyone gripes about spending a vacation with the in-laws. ``There are so few times in your life that you have a wonderful occasion,'' explained Rena Schnall, the mother of four from Queens, N.Y. ``We wanted to share it.''

The Schnalls wanted their relatives with them for their son David's bar mitzvah. (In the Jewish faith, the bar mitzvah -- for girls, the bat mitzvah -- ceremony marks the passage at age 13 from childhood to adulthood.) And they wanted to honor this important religious event with something more meaningful than a big party.

The solution: a trip to Israel that drew 40 members of the extended family, including three bar mitzvah-age cousins. The group, ranging in age from 3 to 77, toured the country for two weeks on a big bus.

Schnall reports it was the trip of their lives. They went kayaking on the Jordan River, rode donkeys, explored caves, stayed at a kibbutz and climbed Masada (the ancient mountain fortress) in between more traditional sightseeing forays in Israel's cities. There was a special child-oriented program at Yad Vashem, the memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, guided by a survivor.

Adding even more meaning to the trip, the bar mitzvah ceremony for the three American cousins at the Western Wall of Jerusalem, Judaism's holiest site, included three underprivileged boys, recent immigrants to Israel.

``Our kids were hesitant to go to Israel at first because they worried that it wasn't safe,'' acknowledged Schnall. ``I wanted to show the kids that we have to support Israel. We felt safe. I'd recommend the idea to anyone.''

Other American families agree. ``I can't wait to go back,'' said Fern Perlman, M.D., a Connecticut pediatrician who's already is planning a return trip following her son's bar mitzvah trip last summer.

Despite continuing turmoil in the Middle East, spokesmen for American Jewish organizations and tour agencies report that bar mitzvah trips for families are growing in popularity. They receive the wholehearted support of Jewish leaders in the United States and the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.

American dollars are vital to the nation's $2 billion tourist industry, Israel's greatest source of foreign currency, notes Geoffrey Weill, a spokesman for the Ministry of Tourism. To encourage the bar mitzvah business, some Jewish organizations and tour groups even offer the child a free trip and arrange for an American rabbi to be on hand for the ceremony in Israel.

``There's an understanding that a visit to Israel can be very meaningful for young persons to help them form their Jewish identity,'' explained Ari Goldberg, a spokesman for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the association that represents 2 million Jews across the country.

``We strongly encourage the idea,'' agreed Rabbi Raphael Butler, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, the national organization representing 750,000 observant Jews. ``It's a chance to create a long-term impact from a temporal moment of celebration.''

Although there are nearly 6 million Jews in the United States, many aren't affiliated with congregations. Some youngsters have not had the formal Hebrew education required here for a bar mitzvah, rabbis explain. On the other hand, participation in the simpler Israeli ceremony takes little preparation.

Those from intermarried homes -- more than half of Jews who marry each year marry someone of a different faith, according to the National Jewish Population Survey -- also are drawn to the concept.

Well-known bar mitzvah tour leader Tova Gilead, an Israeli who met her American husband when she was leading a bar mitzvah tour, recalled one intermarried family who brought along the Christian relatives. ``It's a moving experience for anyone,'' she observes.

Other families, she noted, simply prefer the trip to a lavish party. Costs for these tours, including air fare from New York, average $2,100 to $3,000 per person, less for children under 12.

Some lucky youngsters have generous grandparents who foot the bill. ``If you're a Jew, you can't describe the feeling when you step off the plane in Israel,'' explained Morton Margolis, a retired Beverly Hills executive who took his son's family to celebrate his grandson's bar mitzvah on top of Masada. ``It was money well spent,'' he said.

Margolis added that he and his wife have since promised their younger grandchildren similar trips. ``We have to stay well for them,'' he joked.

Schnall, meanwhile, knows that her next-oldest son is disappointed the entire family can't repeat the Israel tour for his upcoming bar mitzvah. ``People are getting older,'' she sighs. ``I don't know if we could ever do it again.''

RESOURCE BOX

Many travel agents and Jewish organizations offer special bar mitzvah/bat mitzvah family celebration tours to Israel over the summer and school-holiday periods. Prices typically drop during the Christmas holidays and rise in the spring. Ask about a free trip for the bar mitzvah child and substantial discounts for other children. The packages include tours, transportation, hotels and most meals. Prices start at $2,100 per person. Some families add side trips to Egypt, Jordan or elsewhere. The tour operators include:

-- The American Jewish Congress: (800) 221-4694.

-- Tova Gilead Inc. Tours to Israel: (800) 242-TOVA.

-- Aylet Tours (organizes trips for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism): (800) 237-1517.

-- Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARTZA): (800) 223-7406.

-- Emunah Women of America (geared for Orthodox Jews and provides arrangements to share the ceremony with an underprivileged child): (800) 368-6440.

(Look for Eileen Ogintz's new books from HarperCollins West: ``A Kid's Guide to Vacation Fun in the Rocky Mountains'' and, for parents, ``Are We There Yet?'')

(Send your questions and comments about family travel to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or e-mail to eogintz@aol.com. While every letter cannot be answered, some of your stories may be used in upcoming columns.)

(c) 1996, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate


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