Putting the mitzvah in bar mitzvah

Rabbi Chanoch Yeres, director of the Deaf Programming Division of International Young Israel Movement (IYIM), leads a 2013 bar mitzvah for 63 deaf and hard-of-hearing children. Credit: Judy Lash Balint.
Rabbi Chanoch Yeres, director of the Deaf Programming Division of International Young Israel Movement (IYIM), leads a 2013 bar mitzvah for 63 deaf and hard-of-hearing children. Credit: Judy Lash Balint.

JERUSALEM—It’s 9:30 a.m. on a sunny Monday morning in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. Two large groups of revelers almost collide in the alley leading to the main square.

Both groups are accompanied by a clarinetist and a drummer belting out traditional “simcha” tunes, and in the middle of both are 13-year old boys dancing with beaming grandmas and uncles under a small chuppah as they make their way under the stone arches from the Western Wall.

It’s the Israeli version of the bar mitzvah extravaganza, and it’s repeated every Monday and Thursday (days when the Torah is read) throughout the year. Boys from all over the country get called up to the Torah for the first time at the Wall, and then get danced up the steps to the Jewish Quarter and on to a lavish breakfast spread at one of the many restaurants or halls dotting the area.

But not every bar or bat mitzvah age teen in Israel is fortunate enough to have that kind of experience. For the tens of thousands of youths from dysfunctional families who are cared for in residential facilities all over the Jewish state, it’s often Diaspora Jews who make the difference between having no bar/bat mitzvah at all, or having a meaningful transition into Jewish responsibility.

Zemira Ozarowski, coordinator of donor relations for AMIT, a network of educational programs that serves 28,000 Israeli children, is responsible for the twinning program that encourages American bar and bat mitzvah kids to share their celebration with needy Israeli kids.

Some of the Americans come over with their families to take part in the simcha they have sponsored, Ozarowski explains, while others conduct fund-raising projects at home and send over funds to help support AMIT’s efforts to inject joy into the lives of Israeli kids from difficult backgrounds. Part of the donation is designated for the Israeli “twin” to receive a traditional bnei mitzvah gift of a siddur or tefillin.

Some lasting relationships have been forged, Ozarowski notes, and the program was recently expanded to include twinning between Israeli pre-teens from established Jerusalem neighborhoods and kids in AMIT’s Beit Hayeled facility in Gilo.

In Netanya, the Beit Elazraki Children’s Home run by Emunah, a prominent religious Israeli women’s movement with worldwide supporters, hosts many bar and bat mitzvah twinning events. American bnei mitzvah and their families have sponsored several major projects at the home, which houses almost 300 children whose families cannot care for them.

Back in 2011, a group of budding musicians from Teaneck, NJ, raised more than $20,000 as their bar mitzvah project, which funded new equipment for the music therapy program at Beit Elazraki. Several times a year, American and British bnei mitzvah join their peers at Beit Elazraki for a lively party that always features loud music and a festive meal.

A popular bnei mitzvah activity for institutional groups as well as individual families is a visit to the Yad Lashiryon Latrun Tank Museuma few miles west of Jerusalem. Elisha Kramer, a U.S.-born graduate student, spent part of his army service as a tour guide at the museum. “Some weeks there would be two or three bar mitzvah groups every day,” Kramer recalls.

“It’s a great place for kids to learn about the need for a strong Israel and the legitimacy of fighting for Israel,” Kramer adds regarding the outdoor museum where more than 150 armored vehicles are on display along with a moving memorial complex dedicated to fallen Israeli soldiers.

Many bnei mitzvah want to take an active role in their celebration, and Jerusalem Scavenger Hunts provides creative opportunities for learning and fun in and around Jerusalem. Founder and director Tali Tarlow explains that Israeli kids can train to guide their friends and family on a fun-filled, educational, thematic navigation through the city as they engage with its history and figure out their place in its future. The program is tailored to the interests of each child, who works with one of the Scavenger Hunt professional guides and educators to develop a presentation at one of the stations used in the Hunt. “We believe a bar or bat mitzvah should be a special occasion and an opportunity for a meaningful experience,” says Tarlow, a long-time informal educator who made aliyah from South Africa.

Any family that’s been part of the Package from Home Bar and Bat Mitzvah Project would agree with that sentiment. Started by American immigrant Barbara Silverman at the beginning of the Second Intifada in 2000, the volunteer-run program prepares and sends tens of thousands of care packages to Israeli soldiers, focusing particularly on Lone Soldiers (soldiers without family in Israel) and wounded soldiers. Bnei mitzvah in the U.S. can raise money for the project, and those visiting can take part in the packaging and distribution of everything from warm clothing to toiletries to snacks. Each package includes letters of appreciation for the soldiers, which kids are encouraged to write.

For children with physical as well as emotional challenges, it takes a special effort to create a bar or bat mitzvah program they can relate to. At a recent ceremony in a Jerusalem synagogue, 63 deaf and hard of hearing children were called to the Torah in front of parents who were visibly moved by the moment, which was sponsored by the International Young Israel Movement (IYIM) and its Deaf Programming Division in cooperation with the Jewish Agency. Boys with cochlear implants opened up the brand new prayer shawls provided by the IYIM with a flourish, while groups of girls chattered in sign language and waited for their turn to recite a special blessing for becoming a bat mitzvah. Ben Zion Chen, the head of the Association for the Deaf in Israel told the kids, “I grew up with hearing parents and didn’t know what Torah was. You are all very fortunate.”

“It’s important that you know your rights and how to deal with your deafness as you grow up,” Chen added, while a sign language interpreter translated his words to the attentive students.

“He didn’t sleep all last night,” said Orna regarding her son Shai, a profoundly deaf 13-year-old from Ramle. “He’s gone through so many operations, and had so many difficulties in his short life—it’s a joy to be here with him and see how happy he is,” she exclaimed as Shai took his place under the prayer shawl spread over his group, while Rabbi Chanoch Yeres, director of the IYIM Deaf Programming Division read the Torah portion. In true Israeli bnei mitzvah style, the kids and their families, who had come from all over Israel, were treated to a celebratory lunch and a tour of the Old City to mark the day.

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