Dreaming of having a bar- or batmitzvah at the Kotel?
She compares this with the barmitzvah at the Kotel for her third son. “It was wonderful – cheaper and more meaningful, and we spent another two weeks together as a family in Tel Aviv.”
Elana Kruger agrees, saying her son, Jamie, “loved every minute”.
Wondering how to organise your own son’s barmitzvah at the Kotel?
“It is the simplest process,” explains Kruger. “I e-mailed The Western Wall Heritage Foundation at thekotel.org and advised them of the date and time I required. I was told by people who had been previously, to book it for 09:00. I also requested an English-speaking guide and a table right next to the mechitzah.
“It is better to do the ceremony on a Monday or Thursday instead of a Saturday, so you can take photos.”
There may be a number of barmies on the same day as yours, but, says Kruger, “you are so fixated on your own family that you don’t even notice”.
Kruger’s family had drummers and shofar blowers dancing them out of the Kotel, “which added to the uniqueness”. She says the entire process was well-organised: “There is a desk at the gate, and they have your name and booking. You get a certificate for your son.
“They then call your guide. You do not pay for the barmitzvah. We were advised that the organisation is highly subsidised by the government and not to tip or pay anyone as they would feel insulted. It is a free service.”
A representative of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation explains: “All our guides are trained in leading prayers and in helping to create a festive atmosphere. They are familiar with the proper Torah reading tropes (musical cantillation notes) and can assist as needed. They will also assist you in all logistics, such as finding a table in the Kotel area, bringing a Torah scroll and prayer books, and the like.”
However, you can also utilise the services of a rabbi of your choice. For example, Rabbi Yisrael Krengel, who hails from South Africa and lives in Israel, has been performing barmitzvah ceremonies at the Kotel for more than 14 years.
The barmitzvah ceremony at the Western Wall is divided into two parts: The first consists of the blessings, putting on the tefillin and reciting the Shema. The second is the high point – calling up the barmitzvah boy to recite the blessings on the Torah reading.
The ceremony includes various honours given to other men in the party, which should be decided on in advance. From start to finish, the ceremony will be accompanied by singing and great joy.
After the ceremony, time will be given for personal prayers and placing a note between the Western Wall’s ancient stones. Then the group will gather at the upper level of the Western Wall Plaza. Personal greetings and blessings can be included in the ceremony with the help of your guide.
Janet and Sion Gelgor’s son, Liad, recently celebrated his barmitzvah at the Kotel, and they say that the multiple barmitzvahs going on at the same time, was a positive aspect, as he doesn’t like being the centre of attention and was happy to be among other barmie boys.
The Western Wall Heritage Foundation has set aside a special section for refreshments opposite the Kotel. The area includes tables ready to be set up by you. Light refreshments can be brought, but don’t bring anything that needs refrigeration. The food can be left in the special area during the ceremony, with someone you have selected, watching over it.
There is no rehearsal or preparation on the day, but barmitzvah boys can sign up for a six- to eight-week preparation programme. Lessons take place in the city where the boy lives and are given by teachers specially trained for this. The programme is subsidised and requires advanced registration.
There is no limit to the number of people who can attend the barmitzvah ceremony at the Kotel. However, some of the tours and activities offered, are limited to a group of 35 people. If there are more people in the group, they can be divided into several groups.
All you need to bring with you are the tallit and tefillin you bought for the barmitzvah boy. You can also bring sweets that guests can throw towards the barmitzvah boy during the ceremony.
For a fee, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation has a range of tours and activities that can be incorporated before or after the ceremony.
You can also celebrate a shared barmitzvah at the Kotel with a cousin, which is what the Kahanowitz family did for their son Aaron and his cousin Jake, who are two months apart in age.
There is always the risk of things being very busy at the Kotel, and to avoid this, they had a December barmitzvah, which is much quieter than the summer months in Israel. “We also organised for our simcha to be first and early in the morning (08:30 or 09:00) to avoid big crowds. It worked out perfectly.”
Bernice Berson says her son, Josh, felt humbled by the experience and recommends spending a Shabbos evening at the Wall.
The Kotel also facilitates batmitzvah celebrations. A guide provided by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation will lead the 30-minute, no-cost ceremony. The celebration begins when the family and friends meet your guide at the Western Wall’s Upper Plaza. After the batmitzvah girl’s father recites the traditional children’s blessing, she heads to the women’s prayer section with the female guests.
The ceremony takes place adjacent to the mechitzah, so the men can watch from their side. At the end, the honoree receives a certificate signed by the Rabbi of the Western Wall.
Another ceremony, for which there is a fee, is held in a hall in the Western Wall Tunnels. This event includes candle-lighting and a workshop where glass candlesticks are decorated.
Families from Egalitarian or Progressive Jewish communities can have bar- or batmitzvahs at the Kotel. “Some do them at the regular men’s section and some choose to have them at the Egalitarian section,” explains Rabbi Greg Alexander of the Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation.
“At the Egalitarian section, men and women can be together and women can read from, or be called to, the Torah.
“In most cases, we prepare those families who want to have a bar- or batmitzvah in Israel with our tutors here. We then make contact with one of the Israeli Progressive rabbis, who are in touch with them on Skype to help them prepare a d’var Torah and get to know the family. They then meet up in Israel before the barmitzvah to finalise preparations, and then it’s simcha time!”