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A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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Why camp is the perfect backdrop for summer bar/bat/b’ mitzvahs

Photos by Molly Helm and Mitch Lias.
Orel Cohen, 13, is hoisted into the air by family members as they celebrate him becoming a bar mitzvah at Camp Sabra in Lake of the Ozarks on July 22.

Ocean Cohen and her partner, Dani Lizenby, had spent months planning a bar mitzvah for Cohen’s son Orel on Dec. 6, 2022, until she found out her much-needed foot surgery had been scheduled for the same day.

“So we had to cancel the bar mitzvah plans and change everything,” said Cohen, a native Israeli living in Olivette, and director of a cannabis dispensary group here. “We basically decided to do a small party at our home for him and his friends and our small family, but that still was missing the ceremony, the Jewish part of it.”

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Orel, 13, who attends Ladue Middle School, was already signed up that December to go back to Camp Sabra, the Jewish Community Center’s residential camp at Lake of the Ozarks. It would be his fifth summer as a camper. He says he keeps going back because he loves it and has made a lot of friends there.

Cohen said, “So I was having a conversation with (Camp Sabra associate director) Lisa Deutsch, who I know from the J, and she said, ‘You know, it doesn’t happen all the time, but he could have his bar mitzvah at camp.’ And as she started talking about it, I thought that’s a really good idea. 

“So we sat down with Orel and asked him how he would feel about that. And he loved the idea from the get-go. We decided, great, that’s what we’re going to do.”

On July 22, Orel stood before his Sabra campmates and a small contingent of family members who had driven the three-plus hours for the occasion and became a bar mitzvah. The ceremony took place outdoors on a glorious summer Saturday morning, with a shimmering Lake of the Ozarks as a backdrop. 

Bella Fisher, Sabra’s Judaics director, helped Orel prepare for the big day so that he could run the service and deliver his Torah portion without a hitch.

“This was the best day ever,” Orel told Cohen and Lizenby after the ceremony. “It was so much fun and exciting to see my family during camp, and it was just so easy to get ready for the bar mitzvah at camp. I loved the most having my friends surprise me with special songs they wrote the night before.

“This will be my best memory from camp. It’ll always stay with me and remind me that I have true friends for life.”

Cohen and Lizenby were equally effusive, calling Orel’s bar mitzvah magical.

“It was more than we ever expected it to be,” Cohen said. “The fun and relaxed environment made such a difference and created the most fun and enjoyable day. Another thing we’ve enjoyed so much is the engagement of his camp friends through the service. They helped him lead the service, singing the songs with him and even created some special songs. 

“For Dani and I, it was also so relieving and exciting to be accepted and celebrated as an LGBTQ family, having two moms with Orel, up on a stage was nothing I imagined would happen, but Camp Sabra made it happen and we are forever thankful for this amazing day.”

Kim Holtzman Sloan, Sabra Camp director, understands the magic of Sabra’s surroundings and why it is a perfect place for some kids to have their b’nai mitzvah, including her daughter Kylie. She became a bat mitzvah at Sabra in 2021.

“We have one or two bar or bat mitzvahs at camp each summer,” Sloan said. “We don’t really advertise it, but families reach out to us and ask if it’s something that’s possible. For some children — soon to be Jewish adults — this is their happy place, and the people they want to have surrounding them when they become a bar or bat mitzvah. And I think that’s really amazing.”

Sloan says what also makes a camp b’nai mitzvah unique is how the service can be individually designed.

“It’s something we love doing,” Sloan said, “and, really, the sky’s the limit, meaning the camper is asked what prayers would you like to lead, would you like to lead the Shema, would you like to do your Torah portion in English, do you want to give a speech, would you like your parents to have a speech? The sky’s the limit, and we cater to each camper who does this.”

Sabra isn’t the only overnight summer camp that welcomes b’nai mitzvahs while camp is going on. Several others popular with St. Louis Jewish kids also allow these ceremonies, including ones that aren’t Jewish per se.

Dan Grabel is co-owner of Camp Manitowa in Benton, Ill., which has campers of various religious backgrounds. He says that over the years, several campers have had their b’nai mitzvah at Manitowa during camp sessions because of how special the camp experience is to them.

Aaron Hadley, director of Camp Ben Frankel in Makanda, Ill. by Rend Lake and the Shawnee National Forest, echoes similar sentiments, adding that a summer rarely goes by without one or two campers becoming a b’nai mitzvah.

“We were founded in 1949 as a camp to help boys train for their bar mitzvah,” said Hadley, explaining that Ben Frankel is now open to youngsters of all genders and is affiliated with Jewish Federation of Southern Illinois. 

“We have a lot of kids from tiny Jewish communities and to them, camp is their Jewish community, so they choose to have (their b’nai mitzvah) here.”

None of these camps that allow b’nai mitzvahs charge extra for them. Even better, often the camp photographer will capture the event, and families can arrange for pictures.

After Orel’s bar mitzvah at Sabra, he and his family enjoyed lunch at a nearby restaurant. Later that day, he and his camp friends were treated to a dessert party, courtesy of Orel’s moms. 

“What stands out was how stress-free this all was, as well as how special, for Orel, for Dani, for me, for our family,” Cohen said. “Honestly, my biggest concern was finding clothes nice enough for the occasion but also appropriate for walking around camp.”

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