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Bar Mitzvahs With a Marimba Beat?

April 13, 2011 By:
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Birthland Bar Mitzvah sounds like it could be a tour company specializing in trips to Israel -- or perhaps somewhere in Eastern Europe.

As it turns out, it's a new company co-founded by a Philadelphia rabbi that seeks to organize Bar and Bat Mitzvah trips to Guatemala, of all places.

Admittedly, the overwhelmingly Catholic Central American nation with a tiny Jewish community -- and a relatively recent history of violence -- is not an obvious choice among the growing options of Bar Mitzvah destinations, acknowledged Rabbi Julie Greenberg.

The religious leader of Congregation Leyv Ha-Ir, "Heart of the City," in Rittenhouse Square is hoping that the idea will make perfect sense to the hundreds -- and perhaps thousands -- of Jewish families who have adopted Guatemalan children over the past decade.

She's teaming up with a Guatemalan tour operator -- an American Jewish woman originally from Boston -- to put together four-day, five-night excursions that include a coming-of-age ritual, a service project and a Shabbat celebration. (The website can be found at: www.BirthlandBarMitzvah.com .)

Celebrating the Jewish rite of passage in the land of their birth could help to strengthen, in a holistic way, the complex identities of Guatemalan-born kids raised by Jewish families, said Greenberg, who has adopted two children from the country herself. (The Mount Airy resident has a total of five children; the older three are biological.)

Greenberg, who sits on the board of the Jewish Multi-racial Network, described the effort as a response to the growing cultural and ethnic diversity within American Jewish families. She added that it's also a way for teens to affirm the Latino and Jewish aspects of themselves.

"Part of coming of age is discovering who you are and claiming who you are," said Greenberg, 54. "We want to launch our kids into the next stage of life with a pretty solid sense of self. For kids who came into their families by adoption, that birth story and the place of their origin are very important strands of their identity."

Between 1997 and 2008, American families adopted more than 1,000 Guatemalan children a year, peaking at 4,726 in 2007. (In 2008, the Guatemalan National Council on Adoption abruptly announced that it wouldn't accept any new applications.)

Greenberg stated that Jews are disproportionately represented among families who have adopted abroad.

The idea for the business originated last summer, when Greenberg spent a month in the country with her 14-year-old son Jonah Alejandro, "Joey," and 10-year-old daughter, Mozi.

It was the first time the children had returned to their native land since their adoption.

The family traveled to Antigua -- a city in the central highlands that's about an hour outside of Guatemala City, where the bulk of Jews live -- and met American ex-pat Nancy Hoffman, with whom Greenberg had corresponded over e-mail.

Hoffman is a tour operator who had long served as a guide and resource for adoptive families. She also regularly opens her home to Israelis and other Jewish travelers for Shabbat and other Jewish holidays. Hoffman herself has adopted a Guatemalan-child: 10-year-old Michael.

She said she thinks Birthland Bar Mitzvah will not only help other adoptive families, but that leading the trips will help her son connect with a larger Jewish community.

"The world is multicultural. His being Jewish is not foremost of who he is and how he sees the world, but it is certainly a large piece," said Hoffman.

So far, no trips are planned for 2011, and it's not clear how many outings they would like to run in a year. The rabbi, however, said that she's optimistic.

"There are many holy places," said Greenberg. "If you were born in this place, maybe it's a holy place. Judaism can live in many places."

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