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A Dying Mother’s Wish Fulfilled: Rabbi Sees Grown Man Become a Bar Mitzvah

A Dying Mother’s Wish Fulfilled: Rabbi Sees Grown Man Become a Bar Mitzvah

The path towards Judaism for Matthew Jurgens, and the rabbi who helped him traverse it

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Matthew Jurgens became a bar mitzvah this month surrounded by family and friends, an event that took 29 years in the making. (Photo: Avrohom Perl)
Matthew Jurgens became a bar mitzvah this month surrounded by family and friends, an event that took 29 years in the making. (Photo: Avrohom Perl)

As Michele Goldman lay dying of leukemia, she asked a rabbi for a single favor—to make sure that her 2-year-old son, Matthew, would have a bar mitzvah. The then 31-year-old rabbi readily agreed, but it would be another 29 years before that promise could be fulfilled.

On the Jewish holiday of Lag BaOmer on May 7, just weeks before Shavuot—the day G‑d gave the Torah to the Jewish people at Sinai—Matthew Jurgens, 31, stepped forward like the Jewish people did all those years ago and was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah. He did so surrounded by family, friends and Rabbi Anchelle Perl, co-director of Chabad of Mineola, N.Y.—who had sat with Jurgens’ mother so long ago.

Getting to that point, however, was anything but simple.

Jurgens knew of his mother’s wish and believes she made the request because that would solidify him being raised Jewishly. “That was so important to her,” he said.

As a very young child, Matthew Jurgens celebrated Jewish holidays with his maternal grandparents, Lester (Les) and Barbara Goldman, and his aunt, Sharon Licato, his mother’s younger sister. He even attended Hebrew school for a time.

But his father, stepmother and stepbrother were practicing another faith, and told him that if he ever felt left out of the family, they could arrange for his baptism.

“I was 7 years old. What did I know? I was doing Chanukah with my aunt and Christmas at home,” Jurgens says, adding that he knew his parents only wanted the best for him.

“Eventually, I told my parents that I felt left out.” And so, a year later, Jurgens became a member of the Catholic Church, while still marking Jewish holidays with his mother’s family.

‘Climbing the Ladder’

Jurgens, 31, read part of the service in Hebrew. (Photo: Avrohom Perl)
Jurgens, 31, read part of the service in Hebrew. (Photo: Avrohom Perl)

Jurgens met Rabbi Perl when he was 13, but not for bar mitzvah classes; Jurgens’ beloved grandfather had passed away, and the rabbi was among the mourners. The two talked ever so briefly about a bar mitzvah, but that was about as far as things got.

A year later, as Matthew sat in church on the day of his confirmation, he thought about his mother and what she wanted for him. He said then and there, he realized that being Jewish was his true identity.

By the time he was in college, Jurgens had cemented his return to his Jewish roots, actively engaging in Jewish organizations, learning opportunities and more. Seven years ago, he married a Jewish girl—his high school sweetheart, Lori—and today, they have a 3-year-old daughter, Madeline.

When his aunt Sharon saw Rabbi Perl last year at a bat mitzvah, she put her nephew back in touch with him.

“I met with him,” relates Jurgens, “and he said, ‘What do you think about a bar mitzvah?’ And I told him that I’m in the midst of a doctoral degree in education and supervision; I have a young family at home, a career. Can I really do it, and spend the time necessary to study and learn Hebrew and Torah?”

The rabbi’s response: “Don’t think of this as reaching for the top of the ladder. Think about it as if you are climbing the ladder and moving through your life and exploring your Judaism. Consider the bar mitzvah another rung on the ladder, and you will keep climbing.”

“When he said that,” Jurgens replied, “it all made sense. I said, OK. Let’s do it. I was ready.”

Rabbi Anchelle Perl, co-director of Chabad of Mineola, N.Y., led the service and celebrated the fulfillment of a promise he made to Jurgens' mother when Matthew was just 2 years old. (Photo: Avrohom Perl)
Rabbi Anchelle Perl, co-director of Chabad of Mineola, N.Y., led the service and celebrated the fulfillment of a promise he made to Jurgens' mother when Matthew was just 2 years old. (Photo: Avrohom Perl)

‘A Wonderful Outcome’

With the encouragement of his wife, Jurgens began studying Hebrew and learning about Judaism.

“I knew that this was something he wanted, and that it would come,” says Lori Jurgens. “I’m overjoyed for him—that he gets this kind of closure, that he has this connection to Judaism and to his mother.

“And this rekindling of a relationship with Rabbi Perl is also important,” she says, adding that “it’s not just about have a bar mitzvah, but having a connectedness to his faith. That is a wonderful outcome of all of this.”

Heartfelt emotion between longtime friends (Photo: Avrohom Perl)
Heartfelt emotion between longtime friends (Photo: Avrohom Perl)

While no one in his mother’s family ever insisted that he have a bar mitzvah, when Jurgens announced that he would finally celebrate the rite of passage by reading from the Torah, he recalled that they were elated.

“My grandmother had tears in her eyes,” says Jurgens. “She told me how excited and proud my mother would be.”

“It was a pretty incredible day,” Jurgens said afterwards, of having an aliyah and reading part of the service in Hebrew.

For the rabbi, Matthew Jurgens’ bar mitzvah proved a dream come true.

“I am relieved and thankful to G‑d that I was able to keep this promise to Michele Goldman,” says Perl. “The way Matthew conducted himself—we clearly have a powerful neshama [Jewish soul] who will grow in his Yiddishkeit and impact thousands.”

Indeed, Jurgens continues to study and learn, and gives the credit for that to the rabbi. “I’m very grateful to him and his son, Rabbi Dovid Perl [director of the Adult Academy of Jewish Education at Chabad of Mineola], who have been so giving of their time and resources and energy.”

His wife concurs, saying the rabbi was “the backbone of this whole thing. He was at the beginning of this wish and promise, and he’s the one fulfilling it. I think that’s so poetic—just an amazing thing.”

Jurgens gave a small speech, like any bar mitzvah boy would do. (Photo: Avrohom Perl)
Jurgens gave a small speech, like any bar mitzvah boy would do. (Photo: Avrohom Perl)
Jurgens' wife and high school sweetheart, Lori, and their 3-year-old daughter, Madeline (Photo: Avrohom Perl)
Jurgens' wife and high school sweetheart, Lori, and their 3-year-old daughter, Madeline (Photo: Avrohom Perl)
A family celebrating the milestone together (Photo: Avrohom Perl)
A family celebrating the milestone together (Photo: Avrohom Perl)
A daddy-daughter moment (Photo: Avrohom Perl)
A daddy-daughter moment (Photo: Avrohom Perl)
The requisite lifting of the celebrant at Jewish simchas. “It was a pretty incredible day,” Jurgens said afterwards. (Photo: Avrohom Perl)
The requisite lifting of the celebrant at Jewish simchas. “It was a pretty incredible day,” Jurgens said afterwards. (Photo: Avrohom Perl)
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SOCORRO SAMPERIO Cabo San Lucas, B.C.S.-México via jewishcabo.com May 23, 2015

WOW WONDERFUL STORY I AM GLAD FOR ALL HIS FAMILY , CONGRATULATIONS MAY HASHEM KEEP ALL IN HIS PATH AND LOTS OF BLESSINGS Reply

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