Dozens of leading figures in Israeli life and politics, from former Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau to current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, joined a team of Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis and rabbinical students in lending a hand in a massive celebration marking a special milestone in the lives of 107 of their country’s orphans: their bar mitzvah.

Coordinated by Colel Chabad, a social-service organization founded in 1788 by the first Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the day-long celebration June 29 began with a prayer service and concurrent Torah readings at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

With a guest list that included 25 Knesset members, 10 Cabinet officials, several leading Israeli rabbinical authorities, and a catered gourmet meal at the capital’s International Convention Center, the event could have easily seemed large and impersonal. But the children involved, many of whom take part in Colel Chabad’s Chesed Menachem Mendel Educational Program, remarked that they received quite a bit of individual attention.

According to Rabbi Zalman Duchman, one of the directors of the project, organizers designed the event so that, despite its size, it would retain a deeply personal feel for the children and their families. Each boy received their own pair of tefillin, made a blessing at the Torah, and posed with their families for celebratory pictures.

“We designed things in such a way that each family would feel connected and that they were the center of things,” said Duchman. “We even personalized the gifts we gave to each boy.”

Early in the morning, cars and vans arranged by Colel Chabad left from 40 different cities across Israel to bring the boys, their surviving parents, and up to 10 other guests to Jerusalem where another several hundred guests were waiting for them at the Western Wall.

At the Wall, the boys and their guests divided into thirty separate groups so that each boy could be called to the Torah. Students participating in the IsraeLinks program, an in-depth study-based tour of the Holy Land run by the Chabad on Campus International Foundation, brought 150 pounds of candy to distribute among the crowd, making sure guests had handfuls of sweets ready to toss on each boy. They also helped distribute nearly 4,000 bottles of water to stave off the scorching summer heat.

After the Torah readings, Lau addressed the crowd and presented each boy with a set of tefillin, as well as a copy of his newly published book, Hanachat HaYesod. In his remarks, the former chief rabbi recalled his own experiences as a young orphan who had lost both of his parents in the Holocaust, noting the extraordinary care that the boys and their families have been shown.

“Not every orphan is blessed to have people go to such lengths to make a beautiful bar mitzvah,” said Lau.

Former Israeli Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, right, handed out pairs of tefillin to each of the 107 bar mitzvah boys.
Former Israeli Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, right, handed out pairs of tefillin to each of the 107 bar mitzvah boys.

Hope and Happiness

The idea for Monday’s event grew out of a project that Colel Chabad began 18 years ago, organizing mass bar mitzvah celebrations for immigrants from the former Soviet Union who had not had the opportunity to observe Judaism in their home countries. The bar mitzvahs included hundreds of children each year and were organized by Machon L’Bar Mitzvah, an initiative co-founded by Rabbi Yosef Yitchak and Shterna Sara Gutnick.

As plans began to take shape for the idea of doing a large-scale celebration for Israeli orphans, Rabbi Yitzchak Martin, one of the coordinators of Chesed Menachem Mendel, sent out letters to 260 Chabad Lubavitch emissaries throughout Israel as well as state welfare offices, schools, and anyone else who could identify interested families. Meanwhile, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in S. Paulo, Brazil, approached the philanthropic foundation Bayit HaMercazi, to seek help in funding the event. They agreed, and last year, more than 100 families were invited to participate.

The number of 107 was chosen for this year’s festivities in honor of the number of years since the birth of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, whose 15th anniversary of his passing was observed just days before.

Segal Shefi was widowed on Sept. 11, 2001. Her husband, Hagai, had been scheduled to give a presentation that morning at the Risk Waters seminar at Windows on the World in the World Trade Center. He was among the nearly 3,000 people murdered that day. Hagai had been an exceptionally involved father, spending hours each day with son Ro’i and daughter Naomi, who were just 5 and 3 when their father was killed.

Ro’i, who turned 13 on two days before ceremony, and his mother wanted to do something especially meaningful for his bar mitzvah, and when their local Chabad emissary in the town of Yehud, Rabbi Shimon Vainer, told them about the Colel Chabad event, they were both enthusiastic. Ro’i decided he would read his entire Torah portion at the Wall, and that he would do it with two of his friends by his side.

“We loved it,” said Segal. “My family came with us, my parents-in-law came, and everyone enjoyed it. We felt like a whole family.”

Speaking on behalf of, and to, the widowed mothers, Blanka Shmuel said “you are the strength of Israel. You give 100 percent to your families and you do it alone.”

Shmuel, who heaped praise on the other widowed mothers present, is no stranger to challenge herself. Her own son was stricken with a disease as a child that left him wheelchair bound. Bar mitzvah lessons were arranged at the boy’s home, and volunteers helped him to get around on the day of the event.

“She never thought a regular bar mitzvah would be possible for her son,” said Martin. “This day has so much meaning for them.”

After leaving the Western Wall plaza, six of the boys stopped by the Knesset building for what was supposed to be a 15-minute meeting with Netanyahu. But the prime minister delayed his next meeting – with other members of the Knesset, no less – by an extra 10 minutes to speak with the boys a little longer. In his remarks, he described the Rebbe as a light to the Jewish nation and the world.

Later, at the banquet, Knesset members reported that Netanyahu began their meeting by stating: “I apologize for being late, but I had six very important guests, six boys who have just become bar mitzvah!”

Chesed Menachem Mendel plans to stay in touch with the families, incorporating as many of the boys as possible into an initiative that provides private tutoring for the children of 300 widows and widowers.

In his speech, Lau summed up the meaning of the day’s celebration, which he stressed was unlike a graduation party and did not mark the completion of anything. Rather, he said, a bar mitzvah celebrates the beginning of a boy’s adult life.

“This is the way of Judaism,” he declared, “to look forward to a brighter future.”