Image: Rabbi Arthur Starr
Matt Probasco  /  AP
Rabbi Arthur Starr speaks to visitors to the St. Thomas Synagogue, in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. Starr says the synagogue has recorded a tenfold increase in celebrants of bar and bat mitzvahs in the last four years, with reservations stretching into 2009.
updated 3/16/2007 8:37:21 PM ET 2007-03-17T00:37:21

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.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Caribbean way of life

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  2. Barbados

    This undated photo courtesy of Barbados Tourism Authority shows The Watering Hole rum shop in Barbados. The rum shops on the island are good places to sample local food and drink, watch a game of dominos, or just get to know the friendly and hospitable Bajans. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. St. Lucia

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  4. St. Lucia

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    In high season, up to five cruise ships visit St John's, Antigua, each day. The boats unload mostly American and European passengers who fan out across the island visiting the casinos and beaches. Antigua is easily accessible, and can offer good values for tourists. (Chris Jackson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Antigua, located in the Northeastern Caribbean, is a popular tourist spot. While there are high-end, stylish hotels, the island also features a large number of mid-priced options. Visitors will find beach bars, restaurants, casinos and shopping. (Richard I'Anson  / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Antigua

    People walk along an area known as Devils Bridge in Indian Town Point, Antigua. Antigua is a wintertime destination for many visitors from the north. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Dominica

    Not as well known as other Caribbean islands, Dominica is green, fertile and mountainous. Visitors will find some opportunites to scuba dive, but watersports are not its main draw. The island does, however, offer a slew of rainforest trails -- great for hiking and sightseeing. (Greg Johnston  / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Dominican Republic

    An old church building is seen in La Romana, the third-largest city in the Dominican Republic. (Wayne Walton / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  14. La Tortuga

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    Cuba blends the fantastic attractions associated with other Caribbean destinations with an amazing history. Tourists can stroll white sand beaches, take in the incredible architecture and party into the early-morning hours. (Javier Galeano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. St. Barthelemy

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  17. Puerto Rico

    A man climbs to a 40-foot waterfall at the south side of the Caribbean National Rain Forest, commonly called El Yunque, near Naguabo, Puerto Rico. Most visitors hike the well-marked paths in the northern half of the park's rain forest but the trails in the south allow hikers and nature lovers to explore the only tropical forest in the U.S. national forest system. (Herminio Rodriguez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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    The cupola of San Juan Cemetary as well as colorful homes sit next to the ocean in Old San Juan, the original capital city of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The old city is a historic district of seven square blocks made up of ancient buildings and colonial homes, massive stone walls and vast fortifications, sunny parks and cobblestoned streets. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Puerto Rico

    Men play dominos in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Old San Juan is a well-preserved colonial city that allows tourists a peek into the past. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Guadeloupe

    Guadeloupe isn't as developed as some other Caribbean islands, but it offers a variety of beaches -- some active with watersports, some secluded. The island also offers beach bars, restaurants, mid-range hotels and other tourist amenities. (Marcel Mochet / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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