The Bar Mitzvah Celebrations at the Children's Home
This past May a group of seven boys completed an annual preparatory program for their bar mitzvah, which culminated in a grand party with 120 guests. The week before the party, the boys went shopping for new clothes, they were called up to the Torah reading in the synagogue and had a field trip to the Old City of Jerusalem which included a visit to the Kotel. This marked for each of the boys a new beginning, on the threshold of adolescence.
During the year, the bar mitzvah boys were committed to a variety of tasks, each addressing another important aspect – religious, social, family and institutional (the Children's Home).
As the boys worked at each task, they showed great excitement and sincere involvement in the process.
Nearly every young Israeli boy who reaches his bar mitzvah takes it for granted that his family will invest effort s in celebrating this momentous occasion with him, he understands that he is the center of attention and awaits "his" great day. For the boys at the Children's Home, none of this can be taken for granted.
Therefore, the staff at the Home invests tremendous efforts, with a great amount of love, to assure that each boy looks forward to this day and experiences it as a unique and memorable occasion that is his own.
The religious aspect: For the past several years, the Children's Home has enjoyed the services of a young and sensitive rabbi who has been preparing each of the bar mitzvah boys for their Torah reading. The rabbi has acquired much experience with these lads and no longer takes it to heart that, each year, at the start of the training sessions, the boys may purposely ignore him and even mock him. Yet he is persistent, he comes every week, brings each boy a CD with his Torah portion taped on it, and eventually the boys come around, they feel close to him and they learn their Torah reading. In the process, they also learn to put on tefillin and recite the blessings when called up to the Torah.
[An especially interesting event illustrates this rabbi's greatness of heart. Every year there are one or two Arab boys who are part of the bar-mitzvah- aged group. Last year, one of the Arab boys said he too wanted to learn to read the Torah and take part in the synagogue ceremony. He claimed he was part of the group and wanted to do as the others did. The boy's family did not object. When approached, the rabbi did not reject this boy's request off hand. He decided to seek the advice of other rabbis. Surprisingly, they gave special permission to this Arab lad to learn how to read the parasha. At the synagogue, though he was not allowed to say the prayers, he was called up with the other bar mitzvah boys to the bima and read his portion.]
The institutional aspect: For about two months, the boys' caregivers – teachers, psychotherapist, social worker and counselors – work with each bar mitzvah boy on writing his Speech. The bar mitzvah speech reflects the path the boy's life has taken, he talks of how he came to be at the Home, in what areas he feels he has improved and what he thinks needs more work and attention.
When all the bar mitzvah speeches are completed and ready, before the central celebration, the boys and their staff meet for an intimate encounter at which each boy reads the speech he has prepared. This is an exciting and important junction, as each boy comes to express a deep, encompassing perception of himself. He also receives warm and embracing feedback from his caregivers, who have escorted him throughout the years.
Once the speeches are completed and the presentations over, the group of bar mitzvah boys begins working on an audiovisual presentation for each boy, which includes subjects such as the meaning of the boy's name, his hobbies, the music he likes, photos from his infancy on, etc. These presentations are then screened at the major bar mitzvah party.
The social aspect: The bar mitzvah boys are committed to a project that benefits the community. This year, the seven boys organized a special activity at the Children's Ward of Hadassah Hospital, Jerusalem.
Since each year the Junior Unit at the Home produces special soaps and sells them, in order to raise additional funds for extra-budgetary activities, the boys are very familiar with the process.
The seven boys arrived at the Children's Ward and began by talking about themselves to the fifteen boys and girls hospitalized there. They told the young children where they come from and what their life at the Children's Home is like. They then explained the process of creating soap and, finally, they ran a soap-producing workshop with the children in the ward. They created soap mobiles with each child, which were then presented to the children as gifts.
The excitement in the ward was tremendous. The small children found a common language with the boys and enjoyed every moment of their presence. The bar mitzvah boys, for their part, discovered that they have something to give to others, that they can create, that they are worthwhile.
This activity in the hospital culminated an entire year of studying the subject of giving to others.
Miriam, coordinator of the hospital's school program (who for many years herself was a teacher at the Children's Home and is very familiar with their backgrounds), was deeply touched by the boys' self-confidence, maturity and seriousness.
Each boy received a thank-you letter from the Children's Ward and – not surprisingly – the Children's Home was asked to turn this activity into an annual tradition of the Home's bar-mitzvah boys at Hadassah Hospital.
The family aspect: "This party celebration is all that our family has to mark Matan's bar mitzvah [not his real name]. He has nothing else at home or from the family. We deeply appreciate everything you've done. The children are well-dressed and look wonderful, the hall is especially beautiful, you've invested, it's obvious. I have no words to thank you enough".
Matan's mother, with tears in her eyes, approached the social worker after the party ended, and thanked her with the above heartfelt words.
Matan is now completing his first year in the Junior Unit, and it is his fifth year at the Children's Home. His mother is a single parent who has no financial means and works sporadically at house-cleaning. There is no father in Matan's personal history, there never was. The mother is incapable of putting together even a modest celebration for her family, certainly she isn't able to buy new clothing for Matan's bar mitzvah. For her, every aspect of the bar mitzvah preparations and celebrations symbolize everything she would have liked to give her son but is unable to do so. The central party celebration in particular excited and moved her beyond words.
At the party, the bar mitzvah boys' families were present, together with all their caregivers and external helpers, such as the much loved horse therapy instructor and the photography teacher from the photography school in Jerusalem. Every staff member who was at one time involved with these boys was invited, and they all came. Their presence, which reflected their investment in and sincere love for the children, deeply touched both the boys and their families. At the candle-lighting ceremony, each family was called up to light a candle with their son, a status that bestowed upon them honor and pride.
The dining-hall was decorated and festive, with flowers and candles on each table laden with refreshments. The bar-mitzvah boys sat at a long table and in front of each boy was an individual birthday cake with his name on it.
In addition to the greetings and blessings from the staff and family representatives, the candle-lighting ceremony, a musical intermezzo and the individual presentations of each boy, the entire Junior Unit (26 boys) put on a show they had worked on for many weeks.
The finale was a delicious buffet dinner.
During the bar-mitzvah boys' field trip to the Old City of Jerusalem, they reached the Kotel. There, instead of placing personal notes into the ancient cracks between the stones, they released helium-inflated balloons to which each boy attached his own silent prayer.
With the conclusion of all the celebrations, many of the boys felt a deep hope that indeed their prayers will be answered.
Three of the bar mitzvah boys: their story
[The names have been changed]
Benny is the only child in a single-parent family. His mother came with him to Israel from Argentina when he was very young. This is his third year at the Children's Home. Throughout this time, his mother was frequently in extremely unstable condition and leaned on Benny for help. This symbiotic relationship interfered with Benny's rehabilitation process. When he is at home, he takes upon himself full responsibility for his mother, he cleans the house, goes out to buy some groceries, cooks meals for her; in fact, he fulfills the role of the man in the house.
During his three years at the Home, Benny has shown great improvement. He has acquired self-confidence, has learned to read and write; his inner world of paranoia has weakened. At the Children's Home he felt good, separating himself from the pathological environment at home. Nonetheless, whenever he has gone home for vacations, again and again he has been drawn into his mother's total dependency and the Children's Home staff has had to go and fetch him back from each such outing.
For Benny, things have taken a turn for the worse. Several months before the bar-mitzvah party, Benny' s mother was arrested for drug-trafficking and was imprisoned for two months. Once she was released and returned home, Benny has refused to leave her side. He is afraid that without his presence, she will disappear once again, will be arrested or die. Despite endless attempts by the professional staff of the local Social Services and the Children's Home to return Benny to the campus, he still hasn't returned. He wanders around his neighborhood, unkempt and neglected.
Although Benny participated in every preparatory aspect of the Bar Mitzvah program throughout the year, he did not show up for the field trip nor for the party, a fact that greatly saddened the staff and children. Efforts are continually being made on a daily basis to return Benny to residential care at the Children's Home.
Elazar, that is the Hebrew name this young lad chose for himself, "in order to survive among the Jews", as he put it. Elazar's brother was at the Children's Home for seven years and is now at its continuing program at the Kemper Group House in Jerusalem. Elazar comes from an Arab family that lives in one of the Jewish towns on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The family is well-known to the social service authorities due to the father's constant harsh violence towards his wife and children. Many times, Elazar's mother has had to flee to a battered women's shelter with her three children who are still at home.
At the beginning of the year, Elazar wanted to learn the Torah reading "like everyone else". Although such a request had been made before (and was affirmatively answered, as told at the beginning of this article), each child at the Home is cared for individually. Thus, Elazar's request caused the staff embarrassment – is this a therapeutic step or something that can harm him? When his mother was approached, her reaction was clear: "He isn't Jewish, he isn't reading the Torah". With that, the mother added a very telling remark. She said that this was the first time that anyone had ever asked her opinion on any issue, and it touched her deeply.
Elazar accepted his mother's position and invested all his energies in taking part in all the other aspects of the bar mitzvah process. He wrote his Speech and read it before his caregivers, was actively involved in the soap workshop at the Children's Ward, took part in the central party celebration and was beside himself with joy that he was taken by his counselor to buy new clothes ("I can't remember the last time someone bought me new clothes!"). Elazar sees himself as an inseparable part of the bar-mitzvah group and reacted to his unique circumstances with maturity and understanding.
Rami too couldn't contain his excitement when he was taken to buy new clothes for his bar mitzvah. From the start of the year, with the preparations and activities around the bar mitzvah Rami felt elated. He participated fully in every process and waited from one stage to the next for the final grand party.
This is Rami's fifth year at the Children's Home, his first year in the Junior Unit. He is a smart and handsome boy, whose dream is to become an actor. With time, he has made great progress, especially in his school studies, and is constantly expressing his appreciation to the Home's staff for all the help he has received throughout the years.
Rami's father is a very violent man, who has never come to any event at the Children's Home, nor did he show up for Rami's bar mitzvah party. In contrast, his mother was always a pillar of strength for him. Like clockwork, she would come regularly for her weekly meeting with the social worker and a visit with her son and developed strong bonds with all his caregivers.
About two months before the bar mitzvah party, Rami's mother was placed in a psychiatric ward, a fact that wreaked havoc in Rami's emotional state and caused him extreme mood swings. The staff at the Home was deeply concerned, as the time of the bar mitzvah party approached and neither of Rami's parents would be present. However, after joint efforts of the Home's staff and the social services authorities, Rami's mother showed up for the bar mitzvah party, escorted by hospital staff. Her temporary release enabled Rami to take part in the celebrations with his head held high.
This is the text of his bar mitzvah speech:
Rami's Bar Mitzvah Speech
Dear guests, counselors, staff and parents,
We are gathered here to celebrate my being called up to the Torah, to hear my speech, in which I speak about my life, my daily life here at the Children's Home. So… I am Rami, thirteen years old.
I come from the southern city of Ashkelon, some call it "Ashkelona". My father is Yossi, my mom is Miriam. I have five more brothers, besides myself.
I am told that I have charisma, charm and a winning smile. I am well-liked and am rather successful with the girls. Everyone knows I make the very best tehina ever, the entire group looks forward to it during the evening meals.
This is how I came to the Children's Home:
It was on a Wednesday, in the [previous] Bayit Vagan campus. I was nine years old.
I was accompanied by my mother and our family social worker.
In the sky the sun was shining, but in my heart I felt darkness and sadness. I felt sad because I understood that I would have to take leave of my family, be far away from them.
Then I met Sami, who welcomed me. He had dark curly hair and wore glasses, I thought he was a nerd… I was wrong. He smiled at me and showed me the campus.
On my bed I found candy bars and a stuffed animal with a "Welcome" sign around its neck.
During the first few days I was incommunicative, silent and guarded. After about two weeks, I became very nervous and shouted a lot. Each time Sami yelled at me I'd duck, I felt afraid. Sami kept telling me that he would never, ever hurt me, and that calmed me a little. During our daily group sessions, I began to speak up… I felt I had important things to say (till today).
I was anxious, I didn't trust anyone, children or grown-ups. I felt depressed… I was far away from Mom, I missed my dad and the family…
At the Children's Home I learned a lot:
I learned that I am talented, I learned to develop expectations.
I learned to believe in myself, that I am capable.
I learned to dare and try new things and not be afraid. I learned to talk about feelings and create social bonds.
At times I still did foolish things.
I learned to control my anger, I progressed in school and acquired life skills. Especially, I learned that it pays to put my trust in the adults.
I love playing basketball.
I'm a good reader and I'm great with computer games. I have a rich vocabulary and I write songs.
I love listening to music, watch movies, meet with my friends. But what I love most is acting and I want to be a famous actor one day.
This is your chance to get my autograph, my counselor strongly advises it.
I wish to thank the following people:
My mother - who supported me all along, who was obstinate that I never give up, that I will succeed. She taught me that it's okay to make mistakes and to learn from them. She spoke to me so much. And she loves me unconditionally.
My father - who was tough with me because he wanted to protect me, and he taught me a lot about life. He has passed on to me important lessons. My aim is to prove to him that I am capable of succeeding here in the Junior Unit. I love you, Dad.
Sami, my counselor - who had so many talks with me, about girls too. He taught me things, he gave me life skills. He educated me and taught me how to love. Thanks to him I know now that even when you're angry you can love, and that calms me.
Yitzik and Elisia - [former unit coordinators]. I loved them both, for their talks with me and for knowing how to care for me and helping me through crises.
Uri, the head of our Junior Unit - who has always (so far) been okay with me and even when he's angry I understand he's trying to help me and I love him, I want to continue with him for the next two years and learn from him.
Dear Gerard - [Robbie's personal therapist, and JHTC director]. who has accompanied me since my second year at the Home and has treated me with devotion. I'm thrilled to have a therapist like him, who sometimes gets confused himself and makes me feel towards him a bit like he's my dad. I love him ….. lots.
Oshrit my counselor - who reacts towards me more emotionally, who always emphasizes the good side of me. I like the way she corrects my grammar and I learn a lot from her. I love her very much.
Uri and Asaf - [counselors]. I love cooking with Uri, we laugh a lot together, Uri makes me laugh. Asaf, I love you, man, I missed you when you went away on vacation. Because of you, I'm trying to be neater and more organized.
My teachers - You are excellent teachers, I appreciate it that you insist on my speaking correctly and politely with adults, you've helped me progress in my studies and even if I get annoyed by your comments, in my heart I know that it's only because you want to help me. I hope you continue to help me progress and will write good things about me in my report cards. I love you all.
Finally… I wish for myself that this coming year will help me move forward, that I will listen more and become closer to others, that I won't trip up on small things and mainly that I will be happy.
Thank you all for your attention.