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Chaim's Bar Mitzvah

Chaim's Bar Mitzvah

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I wouldn't call it your typical Bar Mitzvah. There was no reading from the Torah by the bar mitzvah boy, no Haftorah. Yet it was special, holy, and so extraordinary. Heartwarming and heartbreaking, awesome and awe-inspiring. It was Chaim's Bar Mitzvah.

Chaim was born 13 years ago, a healthy child to healthy parents. A precocious redhead, he was a bundle of energy from the day he was born. Then one day, out of the blue, at the age of one and a half years, Chaim contracted a "virus." (Funny, how when they don't know what it is, they call it a "virus.") Chaim started shaking uncontrollably. Batteries of tests followed, cortisone injections, visits from specialist to specialist; still things went from bad to worse. "It will go away with time," said one expert. "The same way it came, the same way will it go," said another. "Be patient," said a third.

That was more than a decade ago. Chaim is still plagued by "the virus." He is still shaky, spilling things a dozen times a day. Mealtimes are mini-nightmares. His condition is a constant weight on the shoulders of his loving, dedicated parents; a daily and nightly burden on his siblings at home. All of them have learned to be masters of patience. Their tolerance levels are remarkable. Somehow, they are able to accept Chaim's difficult behavior.

Chaim goes to a special school. In the summer, he attends a remarkable overnight camp where children with disabilities are taken care of and given a vacation by a group of angels in human form who give up their own summer holidays to be counselors at the now-famous Camp HASC.

The easiest thing for Chaim's parents to do would have been to hold a small, quiet Bar Mitzvah party for their son. A low-profile kiddush at the synagogue would have been ample, a little private party for close family and friends quite acceptable under the circumstances. But Chaim's parents are made of different stuff. They took the bold decision to give Chaim the same experience they gave their two older sons for their Bar Mitzvah celebrations -- a hall, a catered affair, a band, the works.

The wider family wasn't sure it was the right decision. Some were apprehensive. Would Chaim be able to cope with the stress levels of being on center stage? How would he perform? Would he behave? But the decision was made and they stuck with it.

As the day approached, the tension was tangible. Chaim's brother came in to New York from Montreal where he was studying in yeshivah. Family arrived from out of town, an uncle -- and even one amazing friend -- came in from abroad. Nobody knew what to expect, but they felt they just had to be there.

The Shabbat meals were hosted at home. Chaim's mother catered lavishly. Guests spoke words of Torah at the table. Words of wisdom and many beautiful blessings filled the air. Chaim wore a new black hat which he seemed to be quite proud of. On Shabbat morning in Shul, Chaim was called to the Torah. With his father standing by his side, he recited the blessings on the Torah relatively clearly and articulately. The atmosphere at lunch was much happier. One hurdle passed.

The camp counselors who came to the neighborhood to spend Shabbat with the family took turns speaking at lunch. Each one told how it was a privilege for them to be part of these children's lives and how their own lives had been enriched from the experience. They thanked Chaim and his friends for teaching them not to take life for granted, to appreciate the blessings most of us assume are our birthright.

I felt humbled; so small, so ordinary. Here was true greatness. These were real-life heroes, regular guys who stood above the crowd. And it was all done without any trace of self-consciousness. They made it all seem perfectly natural.

Then came Sunday evening and the big party. Hundreds of guests attended. To see Chaim's face shine every time one of his classmates arrived, present in tow, was a study in joy. Then the first dance. Chaim and his friends danced the hora together. Chaim was hoisted on to his counselor's shoulders. Chaim and his friends, all riding on their counselors' shoulders, screaming with joyous delight, faces radiant. Was this the happiest day of his life? I think so.

Have you ever danced and cried at the same time? Dancing and crying, singing and weeping, a kaleidoscope of emotions whirring around my heart, confusing my brain. My handkerchief was wet, saturated with tears of joy, tears of sadness.

The lead singer sang a song from Psalms, Hazorim b'dimah b'rinah yiktzoru -- "They who sow in tears, with joy they shall reap" -- and I was reminded of the chassidic interpretation that "They who sow in tears with joy, they shall reap." When Chaim delivered a short Torah speech, part of the traditional maamar said at Chabad Bar Mitzvahs, I felt a tangible fulfillment of that verse. His parents must have worked very hard to help him achieve that momentous milestone.

I was called upon to speak. After all the wrenching emotions of the evening, the words from the second Psalm came to mind -- v'gilu b're'adah, "rejoice in trembling." I just couldn't deliver a prepared speech. I put aside my notes and recalled a visit to the USA some years back by a group of Israeli soldiers. These young men had been wounded in Israel's wars. Some were paraplegic, others maimed, each one a holy soul in a broken body. They had elected to give up a night on Broadway to visit with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The large synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway was cleared, ramps for wheelchairs installed and the Rebbe came down to speak to these soldiers, each of whom had given so much for their people.

The focus of the talk was how when a person is, G‑d forbid, deficient in one faculty, he is compensated in another. Sightless people have exceptionally good hearing, etc. When individuals are physically challenged, said the Rebbe, G‑d gives them extra strength in the spiritual realm. You should not be called "disabled," the Rebbe said to them, but metzuyanim, "Those who excel."

Chaim is a metzuyan, I said. Tonight we have witnessed excellence. He may not be able to perform the same as you and I; he may not possess the skills you and I routinely take for granted. But Chaim excels at many things, including making the rest of us more aware, more sensitive and much more humble.

As the rabbi of a large congregation, I'm called upon to speak quite often. Over the years there have been some very difficult speeches to make. But none were for me as difficult as my speech at Chaim's bar mitzvah. You see, Chaim is my brother's son.

Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn, New York. In 1976 he was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, as a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul since 1986, president of the South African Rabbinical Association, and a frequent contributor to Chabad.org. His book From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading was recently published by Ktav, and is available at Jewish bookshops or online.
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Anonymous via fcil.org January 8, 2012

there isnt much to say... wow!! Reply

Gavreil Queen Creek, Az, USA October 26, 2010

When I read real life stories like this one about Chaim's Bar Mitzvah, I am compelled to remember there are those who suffer far greater than myself, and to ask G-d to forgive me for my own self pity. We all face challenges, but there are those who do so far greater than many of us can imagine. Thank you for this wonderful story about Chaim Reply

Anonymous Montevideo, Uruguay October 25, 2010

Chaim·s Bar Mitzvah One of the most moving stories I ever read. The end was really unexpected, and then I really cried. G-D bless you for your nephew, your whole beautiful family, your faith and your teaching.
I have a beautiful daughter, 40, already with a family of her own, and, as you say, out of the blue, she is suffering from an immune-deficient disease, called Sjogren Syndrome... And even as she was not feeling too well, she managed to organize a beautiful party for my granddaughter's Bat Mitzva a few months ago. Love and faith can work miracles even in these days.
Thanks so much for such a beautiful and moving story. May G·d bless you all. Reply

Richard Raff October 25, 2010

Chaim's Bar Mitzvah i do believe some rabbis have decoded the lock on my tear dispersal unit in my eyes. i sometime wonder if you people are out to make a grown man cry... Happy Bar Mitzvah Chaim, every day is worth studying for. Reply

mark alcock Dbn, SA October 25, 2010

an endearing Uncle's sobering tale awakens us. Beloved Rabbi Yossy, your nephew is blessed, especially having you as his mentor, uncle & Rabbi. I can't think of anyone better. Indeed, we are too, having you close, in Sydeham instead of Brooklyn. We must pray for the disease to die, so he might be set free and live abundantly! Please send him my love & blessings too!! Reply

Anonymous April 22, 2010

wow i also take a cortisol injection Reply

anonymous October 30, 2008

Chaim and the Amazing Bar Mitzvah The special kids who succeed have parents who carry them on their shoulders and show them the world. I saw Cher in "Mask" when it came out in 1985. My best friend and I decided that if we had kids with special needs that we'd act like it was no big deal (like Cher and her friends) and make sure they experienced every aspect of life as we knew it. We each have a child with special needs-- you treat life like a Nike commercial: you JUST DO IT like the other kids in the family and forge ahead.

I'm sending this to my friends with kids with special needs. This is AWESOME. Thank you for sharing! Reply

rebecca November 22, 2006

Thanks for posting this. It is 3 weeks from my first son's bar mitzvah, another child with special need. This story inspired me as I begin to write my speech which is ever so challenging when you are writing about a "special child". Reply

Jeff Geffen New York, NY : USA February 6, 2006

Chaim's BarMitzva Reading about Chaim took me back 25 (or so) years ago to a cousin's Bar Mitzva at The Selwyn Segal Hostel in Johannesburg (then I was a teenager) He was called up, he sang the Brachot all the while tears were streaming down faces around me. It was a sight of pure joy I will always remember 'cause my cousin is a deaf mute. Reply

Anonymous Johannesburg, South Africa January 17, 2006

Chaim's Bar Mitzvah Typically insightful observations and thoughts, well expressed,and thought-provoking. Reply

Gary Page Brandon, FL via chabadbrandon.org December 14, 2005

re: Chaim's Bar Mitzvah As a parent of a disabled child, I agree wholeheatedly with the Rebbe's explanation of how to view disabled people. I also agree that my son has made me see things differently and has made me a much more sensitive, aware, and humble person. Reply

Sarah Cohen West Hills, CA via chabadwh.com May 13, 2004

Chaim First Mazel Tove!!
This was a very touching story. With the support of the family and the environmental the inner angel comes out. Chaim seems to be a lovely angel and a teacher to all. The family has "Unconditional Love" for Chaim. Unconditional Love is blind and only sees beautiful spirit and that is most powerful and which allows Chaim to excel in everything that is humanly possible. I wish the world could have this spark of love that you share and the world would be a Peaceful and Loving place to live.

Again, Mazel Tove! G-d Blessed you with a beautiful flower.
Warm Wishes, Reply