Last April, 60 friends and relatives helped 12-year-old Lila Ziva Rosenbloom of Bethesda, Md., celebrate her bat mitzvah by taking a nighttime jeep ride through the Israeli desert.
The adventure began a year earlier, when Deborah Rosenbloom, Lila's mother, gave her daughter the choice between marking her bat mitzvah in Bethesda or in Israel. Lila's reply was unequivocal: Israel.
Lila's Negev event was planned by her mother and her two partners at a marketing firm called Israel Info-Access. They believe that the perfect bar-bat mitzvah celebration should have three elements: a Torah service, followed by a festive meal; a "Torah Tie-In Adventure"; and a hands-on mitzvah project.
"This is the first time that an American family has come to Sde Boker to celebrate an entire bat mitzvah," said Eran Doron, director of the Sde Boker Field School where the festivities took place.
Deborah Rosenbloom along with her sister, Judith Isaacson — who moved to Rehovot from Philadelphia 19 years ago — wrote "Bar and Bat Mitzvah in Israel: The Ultimate Family Sourcebook." The book was published in 1998 by Israel Info-Access, the Rehovot-based firm jointly run by Rosenbloom, Isaacson and their partner Michele Kaplan-Green, who made aliyah to Ra'anana from New Jersey six years ago.
At 6 p.m. on the evening of Lila's celebration, her American and Israeli guests pile into eight Land Rover jeeps in the parking lot of the Sde Boker school. The gathering includes grandparents from New York along with cousins, teachers and friends.
Doron admits that the logistics would have been impossible had Isaacson and Kaplan-Green not been in constant touch with him and his staff. Rosenbloom, based in Bethesda, could be cognizant of the needs and expectations of her daughter, family and guests, but she needed Isaacson and Kaplan-Green, based in Israel, to work with local vendors in order to translate those expectations into reality.
On the windy hill overlooking the field school, all of Lila's guests pile out of the jeeps for their first stop at a water reservoir. Painted on the water tank in enormous Hebrew letters is the sentence: "The Negev will be the People's Testing Ground."
Acting as guide, Doron explains that David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, voiced these words some 50 years ago when, on a trip to the Negev, he became enamored of the pioneers who had decided to become "Jewish Zionist cowboys. They named their settlement, far from water, electricity or any other settlement, Sde Boker, Field of the Cowboy."
As the group prepares for its next jaunt, Doron warns the gathering: "We're going on a very steep downhill [slope]. So do what the drivers do — close your eyes."
The next stop on Lila's bat mitzvah ride is Borot Hatzatz (Gravel Cisterns). Located in Wadi Hatzatz, these cisterns were dug during the Byzantine period and provide clues to how the ancients survived and farmed the rugged landscape.
While the group looks down an open cistern, some of the American guests wonder why such a spot is not cordoned off by safety railings, since it poses a potential hazard, especially at night. But concerns such as these quickly vanish when the jeeps bump over rocky paths and then balance on the ridge of the Haro'a (The Shepherdess) Dam, arriving finally at a clearing where everyone is told, once again, to get out.
Everyone turns toward the east at Doron's instructions. Slowly and gradually, from beyond the dark hills, comes a soft light. Illumination becomes stronger until a crest of orange climbs into the night sky and eventually becomes a perfectly round orange pendant.
Better than any DJ, dish of hummus or circle dance, here was the full moon — the very moon whose light shone on the night Jewish ancestors left Egypt to wander in the desert. Here was a gift impossible to duplicate for Lila's coming of age.
"The special effects are terrific," joked Sam Freedenberg of Bethesda, climbing back into the jeep for the final stint of the taste of Exodus. His 13-year-old son, Eytan, in a burst of one-upmanship, said he celebrated his bar mitzvah "in Micronesia."
A 110-year-old acacia tree in Nahal Noked provides the setting for the last stop — a cookout. Lila's guests sit on mattresses around low tables, drink wine and munch matzah along with vegetables, grilled chicken, kebabs and baked potatoes.
Skewers for both meat and veggie kebabs serve as sticks for the after-dinner marshmallows, roasted over a campfire.
After the meal, Rosenbloom hands everyone a pair of fold-up, paper glasses that make the candles on each table look like shields of David or other Jewish emblems. Such holographic images add a modern twist to the ancient, natural setting.
With their book, Rosenbloom and her co-authors hope to bring Jewish families from around the world, if not to celebrate the entire event in Israel, then at least to introduce some aspect of Israel into the bar-bat mitzvah year. The idea for the book started with Rosenbloom's research for her son's bar mitzvah, during a family sabbatical here in 1997.
The push to get more families to celebrate in Israel is difficult, because most Jews, even when times are quiet, prefer celebrating life-cycle events in their own synagogues and communities.
Nonetheless, according to ministry statistics, 2,382 pre-teens from other countries — 94 percent of them from the United States and Canada — celebrated their coming of age in the Holy Land in the year 2000. Most of these did so at Masada or in Jerusalem.
Lila's moonlit jeep ride in the Negev complements the prayer services the following morning, with readings from the Book of Exodus. Services take place in the synagogue of Midreshet Sde Boker, an airy white building with windows that open onto the desert landscape.
First the men have their service and then the women participate in one of their own. Lila leads Hallel and chants from the Torah. Her father, David, a professor at American University, watches from the women's section.
Illumination, ziva in Hebrew, comes from family friend Ruti Morgenstern of Petah Tikva who, in a brief sermon, tells the female congregation about the 13 women who nurtured Moses throughout his life.
"It is women's eternal role to do acts of loving kindness and thereby change the course of human history," says Morgenstern, a special-education teacher. "When you look at these 13 women, you realize it doesn't matter if they are Egyptian, Midianite or Israelite, if they are young or old. We all have the ability to change the world."
English illumination comes from Judy Malkosh, a family friend who lives in Rehovot and works at the Weizmann Institute of Science. Her message to Lila is that doing a good deed for one person can have ramifications on many others.
In addition, she introduces the concept of Miriam's cup of water placed on the Passover table, a cup filled by each woman present at a seder to remind all the participants of women's saving and rejuvenating power. Talk of Miriam echoes in the jangles of the souvenir tambourines that Rosenbloom has handed out to the women.
The next day, Lila's family drives from Sde Boker to Eilat for the "hands-on mitzvah project." There, they help clean up a campsite near the beach — a project organized by Friends of the Earth Middle East in which Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians work together to protect the environment.
Lila learned about the agency from the Lend-A-Hand column on an online magazine — @The Source Israel (http://www.thesourceisrael.com)
"We wanted to help Jews around the world create a relationship to Israel," explains co-founder Isaacson after the prayer service at Sde Boker. "And then we want to help them maintain that relationship.
For parents interested in planning the bar-bat mitzvahs for their offspring, the Web site also features Rosenbloom's diary of the preparations for Lila's event, as well as her post-bat mitzvah reflections.
Rosenbloom, Isaacson and Kaplan-Green hope that the exposure on @The Source Israel will encourage other Jewish families from around the world to come celebrate in Israel, even during troubled times.
As Lila Ziva Rosenbloom summed up in her bat mitzvah speech, delivered at Sde Boker: "Israel is part of me, and I am part of it."