Bar mitzvah helps last Jew in family turn life around

Matt Millang had big-time problems. At 16, he was a veteran with drugs, alcohol, street gangs and juvenile court. His life was a downward spiral.

But then something happened and the Concord youth did an about-face.

It may have been the intense therapeutic program at Summit Center, the juvenile institution in Martinez where he was confined. He may have just gotten scared.

Or it may have been the memory of his grandfather who died when Millang was 10 years old.

Whatever the cause, Millang's attitude changed dramatically for the bettter, and in the process he reconnected with the Judaism that was central to his relationship with his grandfather and decided to become a bar mitzvah.

"I knew this was the beginning of everything I want to do," says Matt, who is about to mark another beginning next month — his return to public school.

Millang describes his grandfather, William Ridberg, as a role model. His parents divorced when he was 2-1/2 and for many years his father was uninvolved in his life. "On [my grandfather's] side of the family, I am the only boy. He told me when I was real little that I was the last Jew in the family."

Matt and his grandfather also talked about Matt becoming a bar mitzvah some day, Millang's mother, Anne Millang Bovo, remembers.

On May 19, that vision became a reality. Surrounded by family, friends and juvenile court personnel, Matt Millang celebrated his bar mitzvah at Congregation B'nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek.

It was an emotional occasion for everyone.

Before the service, the family met at Oakmont Cemetery in Pleasant Hill where Millang said Kaddish for his grandfather. It was the first time in six years Bovo and her own mother, Charlotte Ridberg, spoke.

"I encouraged [Bovo] to use this as an opportunity to reconcile with her mother," said Rabbi Raphael Asher, who tutored Millang for his bar mitzvah. "It was important for the boy."

Although Millang had to return to Summit Center after the ceremony, the ritual marked a beginning.

"I never have done anything good for the family," said Millang, "but this was sort of like, I did something right for a change and it's been going good since then and I'm loving it."

According to Bovo, Matt's behavior problems started in kindergarten. In hindsight, she realizes Matt had attention deficit disorder, which was not diagnosed until years later.

"When he was about 11-1/2, he and I started havingproblems," said Bovo, the owner of Anne Millang Hair Design in Walnut Creek. "He was very abusive to me verbally. When he was out, I didn't know where he was and he was in trouble in school."

Tensions mounted and Matt announced he wanted to live with his father.

Bovo had reservations, but agreed to the move in part because she was worn out.

The move didn't help Millang, and in June 1995, he returned to live with Bovo. But things didn't improve.

"There was dissension in the household," says Bovo. "He would walk out the door and I wouldn't know where he was. I knew he was using drugs and there was nothing I could do about it but call him on it."

Bovo was desperate. She went to Toughlove, was in counseling and gained 30 pounds. Matt was arrested several times and eventually put on probation.

"Anytime he violated probation I would call the police and have him picked up and taken to juvenile hall," said Bovo. "After he violated three or four times, he became a ward of the court."

For the next 14 months Millang was in and out of juvenile residential facilities, ending up in Summit Center, a lock-down facility in Martinez.

"That's when we started to see the change in him," said Bovo. During this time she married Ken Bovo, who stepped in and acted as Matt's father. "Before we left on our honeymoon, we wrote [Matt] a letter saying we're in your corner, but we can't do it without you."

Even Matt isn't entirely sure what it was that changed his course.

"It was a lot of things," he said recently. "One of them was getting locked up. I was going in for longer and longer times."

He also started talking to the Rev. Charles Tinsley, a prison chaplain.

"I said I was Jewish and didn't know anything about it," Millang said. "He gave me books on basic Judaism. He said it was real important for a boy to have his bar mitzvah. I told him I wanted to do it. He called Rabbi Asher."

From January until May, Millang was allowed to leave Summit for tutorial appointments with Asher.

"He wanted to explore the connection with the deceased grandfather," said the rabbi. "He was given a prayer book and tefillin by his grandfather and didn't know what they were about. Then once we started he just loved everything having to do with ritual and the synagogue."

Millang was released from Summit on June 27, and is living with his mother and stepfather in Concord.

"He's doing so well and the bar mitzvah was such an incredible step in his life," Bovo says. "It's like somebody switched kids."

Millang recently took two summer school courses and attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He and his mother do presentations on parenting the youthful offender for Contra Costa TV and the probation department.

His grandmother's boyfriend, Marcel Nathans, has offered to tutor him in Hebrew. Next year Matt will petition the school district to count this toward his foreign language requirement.

Millang is looking forward to being a junior at Concord High School.

"Everything is coming in place. I love the freedom. My life is back together and getting on track," he says. "I could have gone another 30 years doing what I had been, but I probably wouldn't have been alive."