Israeli kids get back to basics in year-long bnai mitzvah

For most Israeli kids, a bar mitzvah involves taking a crash course in reading from the Torah, a one-day demonstration of their newly acquired skills and a big noisy celebration in a big hall soon afterwards — a celebration which has nothing to do with religion, but everything to do with the status of their parents and the gifts which they expect to receive.

Things are much different in Ortal, a Golan kibbutz where my 13-year-old grandson, Yuval Farchi, and his family now live. There they have a whole bar mitzvah year. Not only did Yuval have a traditional bar mitzvah in a synagogue, but he undertook an extraordinary series of events with his kibbutz.

Over the last 12 months Yuval and the other five kids in his age group have gone on special outings with their parents, organized a kibbutz event all by themselves (a Chanukah celebration), were given the opportunity to display their sense of social responsibility by collecting food and distributing it to the needy in nearby towns, and to strengthen their sense of family continuity by preparing family trees going back several generations, usually, but not always, to Eastern Europe. In Yuval's case, the "tree" was prepared in the form of a sophisticated computer program.

There were also fun things. For example, each kid was allowed to fulfil a dream (so far as that was possible within the borders of the state of Israel). One girl, apparently not yet a full-fledged feminist, opted for a day learning about beauty-treatment techniques, while another girl chose to spend 12 hours with a top chef. Several boys watched a training session of Israel's No. 1 soccer team, while my grandson decided to attend the taping of his favorite TV program, during which he was photographed sharing a couch with the two stars of the program.

The grandparents of the bar mitzvah group were special guests at an evening devoted to them telling stories about the early years of the state and singing songs from that same period. These included the anthems of the Palmach (the pre-state army) and the Nahal (military units on Kibbutzim), as well as stirring tributes to the building of the Tel Aviv port and the settlement of the Jezre'el Valley. This long string of events ended with a joint performance in the auditorium basketball court of a nearby kibbutz, followed by five individual outdoor parties. The costs of the smaller ones — where there were up to 80 guests — were covered by the kibbutz. Above that number, the parents had to pay for the extra participants.

The only specific Judaic element in this whole year was a morning devoted to teaching the boys how to put on phylacteries and acquainting them with a Torah scroll. But this wasn't enough for Yuval. He said he might later regret it if he didn't also have a traditional "aliyah l'Torah" in a proper synagogue.

Ortal has no house of worship, but, fortunately my wife and I belong to a Conservative synagogue in Rehovot, and our spiritual leader, Rabbi Yosef Kleiner, agreed to Yuval being called up to the Torah here, 155 miles south of his Golan home.

This arrangement involved major logistic problems. Since Yuval couldn't study with Kleiner on a regular basis, he studied his Torah portion with an Orthodox rabbi in the Golan and then recited it over the telephone to our rabbi in Rehovot. Yuval turned out to have an ear for the traditional chants, and in the end read twice the Torah portion originally assigned to him.

As you can imagine, his parents, grandparents and sundry relatives swelled with pride as he read from the open Torah scroll — as if it was something he did every week — and then held the Torah scroll aloft as he marched around the synagogue so each of the congregants could kiss it.

The service was special not only for the immediate family, but also for those guests who had never previously entered a Conservative synagogue. One of them, English-born but a longtime resident in Israel, couldn't get over the difference between our services and those she had attended at an Orthodox synagogue where her own grandson had a bar mitzvah a few weeks earlier. "There we women were shunted off to a little room where we couldn't hear anything, and so we gossiped with one another. Here women were sitting with their families and even reading the Torah. Moreover, you could follow the prayers because the rabbi kept reading out the page when a new portion began…It was so different, so dignified," she concluded.

But by far the most interesting reaction came from our Orthodox relatives and particularly from the younger married women among them. One of them said to me, "You read exactly what we read in our services, and it was a wonderful experience to see families worship together rather than being separated by a mechitzah, and the Torah being read by men and women alike." It is reasonable to assume that they will be trying to persuade fellow members of their modern Orthodox communities to move in that direction.

Yuval has since returned to his kibbutz. It remains to be seen whether his bar mitzvah will remain an isolated event in his life or the forerunner of a growing interest in Judaism.