CHARLOTTE AMALIE, U.S. Virgin Islands — Weddings aren’t the only major life event Americans are traveling for these days.
Now there are destination bar and bat mitzvahs.
American adolescents and their families are increasingly traveling to the Caribbean’s historic synagogues to mark the coming-of-age rituals that are among the most significant events in Judaism.
Jewish boys and girls typically participate in the ceremonies when they are 13 years old, when they go before their congregations to read from the Torah.
The St. Thomas Synagogue in the U.S. Virgin Islands has recorded a tenfold increase in celebrants in the last four years — with reservations stretching into 2009, said Rabbi Arthur Starr. The congregation, which started serving the small Jewish community on the island near the end of the 18th century, oversees about 30 bar and bat mitzvah celebrations each year — up from just two or three in 2002.
“We’ve never advertised that we do this. People just hear about it,” said Starr, whose synagogue is a National Historic Landmark.
The Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue in the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao has seen a similar increase. The congregation, founded in 1732, is likely the oldest in the Western Hemisphere and was a hub from which Sephardic Jews — the name for Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent — fanned out across the Americas.
“Some come with a large group of family and friends to have the celebration somewhere different and get a lovely vacation at the same time,” said Hazzan Avery Tracht, one of the 275-year-old synagogue’s spiritual leaders.
Starr said the ceremonies boost the islands’ local economies since the after-synagogue festivities tend to be lavish.
Thirteen-year-old George Pollack, of Long Island, New York, picked the St. Thomas Synagogue to celebrate his bar mitzvah with 48 of the family’s nearest and dearest, said his mother, Lisa Pollack.
“A lot of our friends might not otherwise have the opportunity to go there,” she said in a telephone interview. “This is the most spiritual synagogue I’ve ever stepped in. It’s amazing.”
The St. Thomas congregation was formed in 1796 by immigrants from Curacao and St. Eustatius, when the U.S. Virgin Islands were under Danish control. The synagogue was built in 1833 with stones used as ballast by European merchant ships. It replaced an older, wooden structure destroyed by fire two years earlier.
Immigrants from medieval Spain and Portugal founded the Jewish community in Curacao in 1651 after fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.
Both synagogues have sand floors in remembrance of the religious persecution that expelled their community’s ancestors from Europe, Starr said. The sand muffled the sound of the banned Jewish prayer.
Some spiritually minded cruise ship visitors bypass the maze of tourist shops in Charlotte Amalie’s downtown to see the mahogany furnishings, chandeliers and Torah scrolls of the St. Thomas Synagogue, which has a core congregation of some 110 families.
“This is such a classic place to come,” said Mel Grossman, a cruise ship passenger from Toronto, Canada, who has visited both the St. Thomas and Curacao synagogues. “I don’t care if I never go to a jewelry store. I come to the synagogue.”
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