|At Rebecca Singer’s bat mitzvah in the synagogue at Masada are, far left and far right, rabbis of Chabad-Lubavitch of the Dead Sea’s “Masada Experience,” with the Singer family: Arline Castellucci, Rebecca, Sam, Laurie, Jon, and Robert Castellucci.|
At a time when missions to Israel are increasingly attracting organizational leaders rather than lay participants, Jersey to Jerusalem 2 (J2J2) drew multigenerational groupings, couples, and families from Blairstown, Demarest, Fair Lawn, Fort Lee, Glen Rock, Hackensack, Ho-Ho-Kus, Paramus, Teaneck, Tenafly, and Wyckoff, as well as a few from Florida. There were four octogenarians and nine children under 14.
The family composition fit in perfectly with mission chair Leslie Billet’s idea – borrowed from past UJA-NNJ missions – to have participants meet Israeli peers over shared meals in Nahariya, UJA-NNJ’s Partnership 2000 sister community in the north.
“When I tell people they are going to have dinner in a stranger’s house in a foreign country, I see everyone cringe,” she said. “But I knew from my own experiences that they would each come back with amazing connection points.”
Billet was correct, according to participant Nate Lebowitz. He and his family discovered they had much in common with their hosts, who had two daughters the same ages as the Lebowitz boys.
“Their name was originally Lebowitz, and they were originally from Romania, as my family was, so we may be related,” said the cardiologist from Demarest. “We are definitely going to be lifelong friends.”
For Jon and Laurie Singer of Tenafly, J2J2 was an opportunity to celebrate their daughter Rebecca’s bat mitzvah. Rebecca has a rare genetic disorder that causes autistic tendencies.
Realizing she would not be able to have a typical bat mitzvah, her parents had decided years ago to take a family trip to Israel to mark the occasion. When they heard about J2J2, they signed up along with Rebecca’s younger brother, Sam, and Laurie’s parents, Arline and Robert Castellucci. The trip’s organizers arranged for an Israeli helper to be with Rebecca during the mission.
Through Chabad-Lubavitch of the Dead Sea’s “Masada Experience,” the Singers scheduled the bat mitzvah for the Friday that half the J2J2 group was to tour Masada, the Judean Desert fortress where a band of Jewish zealots attempted to fend off the Roman Legion in 73 CE. The Chabad program includes mountaintop challah-baking for the women in the entourage, followed by a family recitation of prayers and psalms in Masada’s synagogue. The celebration culminated with singing, dancing, and eating.
“I told the rabbis it really exceeded our expectations,” said Jon Singer. “Our son would like to do this, too.”
But even more unexpected was a gesture on the part of fellow J2J2 participants. At the end of the mission, they informed the Singers that they had made a collective donation to the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel in Rebecca’s honor. Singer recalled seeing a flier in his synagogue, Temple Emanu-El of Closter, about the Masorti movement’s bar and bat mitzvahs in Israel for children with special needs.
“This really brought it full circle,” he said.