Celebrations | Its a mitzvah: Disadvantaged kids enjoy rite of passage

jerusalem  |  It’s 9:30 a.m. on a sunny Monday morning in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter. 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.

Rabbi Chanoch Yeres leads a bar mitzvah for 63 deaf and hearing impaired children. photos/judy lash balint

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 throughout the Jewish state, it’s often diaspora Jews who make the difference between having no bar or bat mitzvah at all, or having a meaningful transition into Jewish adulthood.

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 fundraising 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 b’nai mitzvah gift of a siddur or tefillin.

Some lasting relationships have been forged, Ozarowski says, and the program was recently expanded to include twinning between Israeli preteens from established Jerusalem neighborhoods and children 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 b’nai mitzvah twinning events. American b’nai 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, N.J., raised more than $20,000 as their b’nai mitzvah project, which funded new equipment for the music therapy program at Beit Elazraki. Several times a year, American and British b’nai mitzvah join their peers at Beit Elazraki for a party that always features loud music and a festive meal.

A popular b’nai mitzvah activity for institutional groups as well as individual families is a visit to the Yad Lashiryon Latrun Tank Museum a 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,” he recalls.

A father helps his son put on tefillin for the first time at a bar mitzvah in Israel.

“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. The outdoor museum displays more than 150 armored vehicles along with a memorial complex dedicated to fallen Israeli soldiers.

Many b’nai 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, educational  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 longtime 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 probably agree with that sentiment. Started by American immigrant Barbara Silverman  in 2000 at the beginning of the second intifada, the volunteer-run program prepares and sends tens of thousands of care packages to Israeli soldiers, focusing on those without family in Israel and wounded soldiers.

B’nai mitzvah teens in the U.S. can raise money for the project, and those visiting Israel can take part in the packaging and distribution of everything from warm clothing to snacks. Each package includes letters of appreciation for the soldiers, which kids are encouraged to write.

For children with physical or 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 or hearing impaired 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 their 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.

After the ceremony, the children and their families were treated to a celebratory lunch and a tour of the Old City to mark the day.