Growing up, Adam Korte went to plenty of bar mitzvah ceremonies for his friends as they turned 13 and became men in the eyes of the Jewish community. And when those same friends asked when his was taking place, Korte didn’t have an answer for them.

“I never really thought about it much as a kid,” said the now 20-year-old, from Whitefish Bay, Wis., just outside of Milwaukee. “I guess it never occurred to me. I grew up in a secular household.”

"Having a bar mitzvah," he continued, “wasn’t something that I should be doing; it was just something my friends were doing. I knew I was Jewish, but I didn’t know what that meant.”

Still, the seeds were firmly planted in Korte’s mind that someday, maybe, he’d have his own bar mitzvah. That day came when Korte, surrounded by his friends and family, was called to the Torah for an aliyah during the afternoon minchah prayer service at the Rohr Family Chabad House at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

But to get to that day, Korte, who attends UW-Madison, had to overcome a few obstacles—like learning some Hebrew. He also had to tell his parents and his 89-year-old grandmother—a Holocaust survivor who had seen firsthand the devastation the Nazis wrought on anyone who had Jewish bloodlines—what he planned to do. He wasn’t entirely sure how either conversation would go.

“I never had any Jewish learning growing up. We would [mark] a Jewish holiday on occasion, but we had no habitual Jewish holiday practices in our family,” said Korte. At the urging of some friends from school, he went to a Shabbat dinner last fall at the local Chabad House, run by Rabbi Mendel and Henya Matusof.

Rabbi Mendel Matusof and Adam Korte
Rabbi Mendel Matusof and Adam Korte

“I went to Chabad, and it was really good food and good people, and I really liked it,” he said, recalling his impressions of that first meal. “I kept going to them for Shabbat dinner, and that semester I heard about a Birthright program through Chabad and thought if I am going to go to Birthright, I will go through Chabad of Madison.”

Off to Israel

Birthright Israel is a program that takes Jewish young adults from the Diaspora who generally have not been on an organized trip to Israel before to the Jewish homeland to experience all the country has to offer. The free, 10-day trip is geared to young adults ages 18-26 from a wide range of organizers. The program Korte attended, Mayanot Israel, is under the auspices of Chabad.

Also on the trip last winter was Matusof, who has been the Chabad shaliach, or emissary, in Madison since 2005, and who has been leading Mayanot Israel trips since 2008.

“In Israel, young American Jews often find a newfound sense of Jewish identity and belonging,” Matusof said of the program. “They realize how special it is to be Jewish and retain that Judaism in their families for generations to come.”

In addition to leading students to places like the Golan Heights, Safed, Masada, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Matusof also helped some Mayanot participants attain bar mitzvah status. “I held a bar mitzvah for two other college guys in Israel and offered to have one for Adam there, but he wanted to do it at home.”

Korte declined the rabbi’s offer because he had a different idea. “I’m a very big family person,” explained the college junior, “so having the majority of my family there was the most important thing to me. … I figured, if I was going to have a bar mitzvah, I wanted to have it the right way and learn the alef-bet and be able to read Hebrew as well.”

With this goal in mind, Korte began meeting with the rabbi every Wednesday night.

Sitting and Studying—and Loving It

They started off learning about the basics of Judaism, the holidays and more. Korte said he had “a lot of questions about davening,” which he discussed with Matusof. Their classes continued and progressed, with Korte learning the Hebrew letters and how to read until the day he was able to recite the blessings before the Torah reading and for Havdalah, said at the end of Shabbat.

Korte said he absolutely loved those classes.

“I looked forward to Wednesday nights at 8:30. It wasn’t just about the learning,” he said, but the sitting and studying with the rabbi. “It was like talking to a friend—and such fun.”

The feeling was mutual. “I enjoyed learning with Adam immensely,” responded Matusof.

Adam enjoyed the learning so much that he plans to continue to grow his Jewish education by enrolling this fall in the national Sinai Scholars Society. The program, a joint project of Chabad on Campus and the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, is open to a select number of students each year and covers a range of Jewish topics as they relate to the modern world.

As for his bar mitzvah preparations, if it all sounds like it happened quickly, it did, partially because of Korte’s skills with foreign languages. “I’m a Spanish major [with a double major in neurobiology], and I feel comfortable speaking other languages. My mother speaks Hungarian, and my grandmother talks seven languages, so I picked it up quickly.”

“I’m a very big family person,” explained the college junior about his bar mitzvah, “so having the majority of my family there was the most important thing to me."
“I’m a very big family person,” explained the college junior about his bar mitzvah, “so having the majority of my family there was the most important thing to me."

While he was studying, Korte knew he had to tell his family about his decision. He spoke to his parents first, who he said were surprised at his decision. “My mom was very happy and my dad, who isn’t a religious person at all, was very supportive.”

Then he had to tell his grandmother, Martha Osvat. Noting that she was a Holocaust survivor, Korte explained that she “always tried to influence me to conform to society, which is not Jewish—to blend in. She always wanted me to distance myself from Judaism because of her experiences and what happened to people who recognized themselves as Jews.”

Korte said when he finally did talk to her, “she took it a lot better than I thought she would.”

In fact, Osvat was quite proud of her grandson. Having suffered a fall just weeks before the ceremony and still in rehab at the time of the service, she went from her hospital bed to her grandson’s bar mitzvah, and called the event “one of the most glorious, deeply happy moments of my life.”

Throughout the service, Osvat said she thought of her late husband, Korte’s grandfather, George, which is also Adam’s middle name. He was not that religious, she said, but “deeply, deeply Jewish,” and always dreamed of going to Israel. It was a dream her grandson got to fulfill.

“When Adam went to Israel, I was happy,” she said. “He saw what his grandfather couldn’t. And I was happy he had an idealistic goal in his heart, that he can be bigger than himself and touch his roots, because he has other kinds of roots as well, and this is the one that spoke out to him.”

Korte’s teacher, Rabbi Matusof, was also moved by the service. “Seeing someone, who, when you first meet him, had little connection to Judaism, to get up” on the bimah surrounded by family and friends, “there was a lot of pride, a lot of joy.”

So how did Korte process it all?

“I feel like, for me, the most important part of the bar mitzvah and learning about Judaism is not coming from a theological experience” he explained. Rather, “I felt that it was my obligation to my family and what they had gone through being Jewish to have this small act, a bar mitzvah, to pay homage to what they’ve gone through.”

He might see it as a small act. But his grandmother described it as something much more. For her, it’s a “big, heroic thing.”

“To make that choice,” she said, shows “he has so much love for Judaism and Jewish life. It’s such a big thing. Small persons don’t do such a thing.”