Image: Krauss family
Courtesy Amy Krauss
Sam Gordon, 13, of Tuscon, Ariz., celebrated his December bar mitzvah on St. Thomas in the Caribbean and then went snorkeling with his mother, Amy Krauss, and brother Jake Gordon.
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msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/28/2011 12:48:05 PM ET 2011-03-28T16:48:05

When Jodi and Alan Katz of Marietta, Ga., began talking about plans for a bar mitzvah for their son, Zach, the idea of reading the Torah in front of 300 strangers wasn’t so appealing to him.

He wanted something different. So the couple took a page from the wedding planner’s book: They invited 35 relatives and friends to join them on a cruise to Cozumel in November for the traditional coming-of-age Jewish celebration.

“It was the best thing we ever did,” said Jodi Katz. “It took away that pressure and anxiety. I could see in his eyes he was happy.”

Hitting the road
Rather than spending $20,000 to $100,000 on bar and bat mitzvah parties, more families are taking their show on the road for a fraction of the cost, in pursuit of unique memories and less party planning.

They’re celebrating on Caribbean islands, in Spain and in Costa Rica. They’re booking ski vacations in Colorado and in Jackson Hole, Wyo., reserving dude ranches and Jewish summer camps in Vermont and trekking to Budapest, Montenegro and Kaifeng, China, the site of an ancient Jewish community.

“It’s definitely becoming more popular,” said Rob Eshman, editor of Jewishjournal.com, the largest Jewish news web site outside Israel.

For years, Americans traveled to Israel for b’nai mitzvahs, prompting a cottage industry offering packaged tours for those visitors. The same kind of “mini-industry” is now emerging for travel packages to other destinations, Eshman said.

Credit more mixed-faith marriages and the fact that more Jews are not affiliated with their local temples. Plus, families are scattered across the nation, so one bar mitzvah can become an instant family reunion.

“If you have family everywhere, you can have a bar mitzvah anywhere,” said Eshman.

Blending vacations and tradition
Ellen Paderson, owner of the BarmitzvahVacations.com, said some people also like the idea of wrapping a traditional custom into a family vacation.

Her Boston travel agency will plan 10 destination b’nai mitzvahs this year, up from just two events in 2007. For $500, she planned the Katz family's bar mitzvah, booking the airline tickets and cruise reservations for guests — who paid their own way. She also arranged for a Jewish cantor to perform the ceremony and the cocktail hour that followed. The whole trip cost about $10,000.

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“It was perfect,” said Alan Katz. “People travel to bar mitzvahs anyway. Instead of just coming to Atlanta, we all got on a ship and went to Mexico.”

The new twist on an old Jewish custom doesn’t sit well with everyone. Author and Georgia-based Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin sees these so-called “elopements” as a big problem for Judaism because it removes the child from their local Jewish community — which he says is the glue that holds the religion together.

“The beauty of the setting doesn’t come from the beach and sunset,” said Salkin, author of the book, “Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah.” “It comes from knowing the people in the pews.”

But in a time of one-upsmanship for those celebrations, parents are looking for alternatives. Today’s bar mitzvahs may involve elaborate themes and party planners and may rival weddings in terms of planning and cost. Parents could pay $25,000 to $100,000 for a bat or bar mitzvah, hiring disc jockeys or live bands, caterers and florists.

In New York City, the bashes have become even more extravagant, hitting the $1 million mark. One recent party featured the guest of honor descending from the ceiling in a cat suit, others have had sword swallowers, theatrical lighting, and karaoke machines — even performances by the New York Knicks dancers, Jon Bon Jovi and Cirque du Soleil artists.

A lasting memory
“These kinds of events get to be completely out of control, and it dilutes the whole experience,” said Marti Fischer, a Weston, Conn., mother whose daughter, Katherine, decided to buck the trend. They held her bat mitzvah with 35 friends and family at Copper Mountain Ski Area in Colorado in 2007.

Image: bat mitzvah
Courtesy Marti Fischer
Katherine Fischer, center, celebrated her bat mitzvah with 35 friends and family at Copper Mountain Ski Area in Colorado in 2007.

The party guests paid their own way to Colorado for the trip, but the Fischer family paid for several meals, the ceremony and activities like tubing on the slopes and a sleigh ride. Katherine and her parents recall fond memories of a “spiritual ski day” with Rabbi Jamie S. Korngold, in which they talked about Judaism on the chairlift.

“Rather than a one-day party, this gave me more of a memory,” said Katherine, who is now 15.

For her mother, the ski trip meant less stress, less hoopla and the ability to invite just the people closest to the family. “You have a week in a place where you can really focus on your family and your friends. You’re not running around talking to the caterer and florist,” she said.

Korngold’s nonprofit company — Adventure Rabbi based in Boulder, Colo.— focuses on teaching about God in nature. The group’s three rabbis have 40 b’nai students this year, up from just six in 2007. For $3,000 to $5,000, Adventure Rabbi teaches kids traditional lessons using Skype. They also organize the Colorado ceremonies, as well as hikes and horseback rides in Boulder and skiing at Copper Mountain for guests.

Next year, Adventure Rabbi will offer a two-week backpacking trip for a group of kids that will culminate in a group b’nai mitzvah in Boulder.

“People are trying to get away from big parties, and they want to focus on the spiritual rite of passage,” Korngold said.

That was the case for Amy Krauss, whose son, Sam Gordon, chose a Caribbean cruise for his December bar mitzvah. The 11 guests went island hopping, snorkeling and swimming, and on the ship they watched ice-skating shows and scaled rock-climbing walls. But they still felt a connection to the ceremony, the rabbi and the synagogue on St. Thomas, Krauss said.

“I don’t think a bar mitzvah has to be one-size-fits-all,” she said. “It’s all about making it a meaningful experience for the child.”

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