More area Jews are flying to Israel to observe kids' rite of passage

Farmington Hills, USA - For Lisa Lis, travel to Israel is a family affair. This year, the Farmington Hills resident and her family should have plenty of company.

Despite a weak dollar and a sketchy economy, more people are making the pilgrimage to Israel -- many to celebrate Jewish rites of passage such as bar mitzvahs in a more meaningful way than throwing a blowout party back home.

In 2007, some 2.3 million people traveled to Israel -- a 25 percent jump over 2006, said Gail Barzilay, director of public relations of the Israel Ministry of Tourism. About 500,000 Americans visited Israel in 2007 -- more than in any year since the modern state of Israel was founded in 1948.

"We're seeing a lot more families going to Israel, either on group trips or on their own," said Lis, 47. "It's a very meaningful way to celebrate and it's a memory they'll never forget."

She met her husband there in 1980. Now the couple and their four children go back yearly. Two years ago, their oldest son, Mataan, had his bar mitzvah in Israel. This year, when the family goes back in December, their youngest son, Aviv, will also have his bar mitzvah there.

The bar mitzvah (bat mitzvah for a girl) represents the coming of age of a Jewish boy. According to tradition, when Jewish children reach the age of majority -- typically 13 for a boy and 12 for a girl -- they are considered responsible for their actions.

And 2008 promises to bring in even more people to Israel than 2007. This year is the 60th anniversary of the Jewish state. Closer to home, a family trip sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit had 400 people commit to the 10-day trip shortly after registrations started being accepted in December.

"We sold out in less than a month," said Scott Kaufman, who is heading up the trip for the federation. "I've had some families registering a group of 18 or 19 people, which is pretty special. It's hard for a Jew, even a fully secular Jew to not feel something in Jerusalem and in Israel."

He estimates about 50 students will have their bar and bat mitzvah celebrations during the trip.

Tours also are booked solid at the nationally known Margaret Morse Tours, a Florida-based company that's been organizing the two-week trips for Michigan residents and others since 1980. Many families find the trip a welcome, spiritual alternative to having a big party in their hometown, said Robyn Morse, the granddaughter of founder Margaret Morse.

"We've found that people with two kids do the big traditional party at home first and then say 'Never again,' " she said. "Israel becomes the choice after that for them."

Travel to Israel suffered in 2006 because of that summer's 33-day conflict between Hezbollah forces and the Israeli military, but the conflict appears to be a distant remembrance and the area has been relatively peaceful recently.

A 10-day trip can cost $5,000 per person. That price can be seen as a bargain compared with bar mitzvah celebrations in southeast Michigan -- parties that can easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars and more.

"I think a lot of people get caught up in the bar mitzvah parties to some degree," Kaufman said. "There are so many parties and so many are way over the top. It's a way to bring it back -- downscale a little -- and bring it back to more of what the intent is."

For Elijah Kollin, forgoing a big party for an Israel trip is a relief.

"I was kind of nervous about the party, so we talked about other options and my parents brought up Israel and I said that was a good option," said Elijah, who turns 13 in October. They'll have a small celebration at their temple in October and in lieu of a big party, Elijah will make the trip with his mom and dad, Elena and Andy, and his 7-year-old sister, Lily, in December.

"The big parties, it's more about the party than the service, and I don't like that," Elijah said. "In Israel, I'm going to have a service there and a service here so there is a lot of religion. We'll celebrate having my service instead of celebrating a big party."