Everything is special in front of the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem. But for a select group of boys, their recent time in front of Jerusalem’s Western Wall may have broken the barriers of the meaning of the word special, at least for them.
Last week, a group of 111 orphans celebrated their Bar Mitzvahs with a full program at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, followed at the Kotel with the laying of tefillin and their first time being called up to the Torah.
The first such gathering was held in 1992, when Colel Chabad initiated a mass Bar Mitzvah in the merit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, which included nearly 1,000 recent Russian immigrants to Israel.
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Fifteen years later, in 2008, Rabbi Yitzchak Michaan, Chabad-Lubavitch emissary and director of Mercaz Hayehudit Bait Brazil, held a Bar Mitzvah for one of his sons in the Jewish Quarter and invited 10 orphans of Bar Mitzvah age to celebrate with them. Afterwards, Michaan approached Rabbi Sholom Duchman, international director of Colel Chabad, requesting that they further develop and implement this idea.
This year marks the fifth group Bar Mitzvah of this kind. The number of orphans involved corresponds to the number of years since the Rebbe’s birth, this year being 111.
Before the event, each boy received a package of clothing and new shoes. A convoy of buses collected the Bar Mitzvah boys and their guests – they could each invite 10 people – from places around the country, including Tzfat, Ashkelon, Haifa, Netanya and Beersheva.
The Bar Mitzvah boys celebrated at a grand party at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem. (Photo: J.J. Gross)
The day began with the boys being presented tefillin and tallitot, prayer shawls, in bags embroidered with their names. While they enjoyed beverages and cake, the celebrants had their pictures taken at three different locations; each boy will be sent his own keepsake album of 30 professional photographs.
Rachel, a widow of three years, carefully recorded the name of each boy as the photo sessions progressed. She helped out partially because her own son was offered such a Bar Mitzvah. “Being a volunteer helps me give back,” she said. “Though it’s hard, we must continue.”
At 11:30 a.m., the full program began. Guests enjoyed several courses of food while receiving the blessings of rabbis and encouragement from VIPs, including community leaders and members of the Israeli Knesset.
The program was opened by Rabbi Binyomin Lipkin, who served as the emcee. Others who spoke included Rabbi Sholom Duchman, international director of Colel Chabad; Rabbi Mendi Blau, director of Colel Chabad in Israel; Rabbi Amram Blau, director of the Chesed Menacham Mendel Orphan Support Project; Rabbi Yitzhok Michaan; and Rabbi Shmuel Lipsker, of Colel Chabad, New York.
After a game show where the rabbis quizzed the boys – and the boys answered with electronic devices – all proceeded to the Kotel.
On the bus, Leah shared her story. Widowed for five years, her challenge that day was “what lies ahead at the Kotel. This is the time my husband should be with me, teaching our only son to put on tefillin for the first time.” Her son smiled and replied, “I have to be strong and continue for my [own future] children. That is the life of the Jew.”
At the Kotel, the boys received another package: a box of three handmade shmurah matzahs, a book, an electronic game, cosmetics for the mothers, caps for the relatives to wear, sweets for the family to throw during the aliyah to the Torah and a certificate. The boys were placed in groups consisting of four who already had their Bar Mitzvahs and four who were about to celebrate. Each was assigned a group leader, as others held a new tallit above them to the calls and singing of family, friends, rabbis and onlookers.
The celebrants had their pictures taken at three different locations. Each boy will be sent his own keepsake album of 30 professional photographs. (Photo: J.J. Gross)
The group leader helped them lay tefillin. A local rabbi assisted boys whose fathers were not present.
A grandfather there said, “Thank you, to all of Chabad who were involved in such a moving event. There are no words for what has been achieved today – to see the unity of Jews from all backgrounds and all areas of Israel come together and celebrate."
The program was arranged by event producer Rabbi Moti Scheiner; Rabbi Itzik Marton, director of the Chesed Menachem Mendel Orphan Support Project; and Shmulik Mendelson. The celebration was part of the Chesed Menachem Mendel Orphan Support Project, underwritten by Rabbi Michaan, which continues through the year.
For nearly 225 years, said Rabbi Menachem Traxler of Colel Chabad, the agency has been doing "one thing and one thing only – providing meaningful material help to Israel’s poorest, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or degree of religious observance."
“The Bar Mitzvah celebration is just one of dozens of Colel Chabad programs throughout Israel that addresses the needs of the disadvantaged,” he continued. “Our greatest effort is directed toward eliminating hunger among the poor through a chain of soup kitchens, food distribution programs and subsidized supermarkets. We also have medical and dental clinics, holistic programs for widows and their fatherless children, aid for poor couples seeking to get married, absorption services for recent immigrants and interest-free loans for those needing a lending hand.”