Bar Mitzvahs

Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

One year ago, no one had ever heard of a Zoom bar or bat mitzvah.

NEW YORK – When the Bregman family was planning their son Daniel’s bar mitzvah this past November, parents Eleanor and Peter found themselves with a lot more responsibilities –and ownership – over the process than they had with the two previous bat mitzvahs they had planned. Daniel’s bar mitzvah, which took place in the midst of a global pandemic, was a Zoom-mitzvah. While the Bregmans received support and guidance from the clergy at Romemu, their Manhattan synagogue, it was still a large undertaking. 

“It was stressful but meaningful,” reports Eleanor. “Peter and I were figuring out who was responsible for what.” They embraced – and ultimately enjoyed – both the process and the bar mitzvah weekend, which they celebrated in person with some extended family at a home in upstate New York, and with nearly 300 guests who shared in the simcha on Zoom. One year ago, no one had ever heard of a Zoom bar or bat mitzvah. They now rival Zoom weddings, baby namings, brisses, funerals and shivas as the most popular online Jewish rituals to attend during a pandemic. Zoom bnai mitvahs may be the only ritual with research and best practices, thanks to Moving Traditions and their Zoom-Mitzvah 101: A Moving Traditions Guide to Thinking Creatively About Pandemic B’nai Mitzvahs guide.THE MOVING TRADITION organization, launched in 2005 to “help Jewish youth navigate the world and thrive as healthy, ethical and Jewishly connected people,” ventured in to the b’nai mitzvah space in 2018 as they launched their B’nai Mitzvah Family Education program to prepare Jewish clergy and educators to help 6th and 7th graders and their parents develop strong communication and empathy as they prepare to become and/or parent a teenager.

The Moving Traditions B’nai Mitzvah curriculum centers around such questions as what it means to become a teen, navigating being the center of attention, parenting a teen (as compared to parenting a child), and obligations of hosts and guests.

Harlene Appleman, executive director of the Covenant Foundation, which supports the project, reports, “Moving Traditions has created a family engagement program that’s directly in sync with the delicate social and emotional moment of adolescence, which is a necessary recipe for infusing the B’nai Mitzvah ritual with meaning. The Covenant Foundation is fortunate to partner with such intentional educators.”

When looking at the data from the first year of the program, the Moving Traditions team found that of the more than 900 families surveyed about their experience with the curriculum, the majority of parents said that what they enjoyed most about it is just being together with their children. Being with other parents came in second.
Rabbi Janice Elster, Director of Youth and Family Education at Romemu, the Bregmans’ congregation, came across the program as she was looking “for a family experience to round out the b-mitzvah experience.” Elster and the Moving Tradition team prefer to use the gender-neutral term, b-mitzvah in referring to the life cycle event. She has found the program to be a “tremendous resource.”

Moving Traditions has even reworked and recreated lessons for a Zoom audience during COVID. Elster reports that she uses the curriculum to address issues of emerging adolescence through a Jewish lens and through Jewish texts.

“We start a conversation and the families continue it at home.
Elster’s role has evolved and expanded in the age of COVID.
“I am a rabbi educator who does video production, lighting and camera angles!”
While she proudly notes that Romemu has “always streamed services to a global audience,” she is now assisting more families as they prepare to celebrate Zoom b-mitzvahs.

Rabbi Daniel Brenner, Moving Tradition’s Chief of Education, reports that his organization’s interest and involvement in Zoom b-mitzvahs “grew organically” from a session they were teaching during COVID entitled “B-Mitzvah Lost and Found,” a program for parents which addressed the “new reality.” Brenner adds, “The ideas they had (about b-mitzvah) since age two weren’t going to happen. They were going to need to let go of the picture they had. It was a difficult conversation about loss.”
This webinar led to further conversations and suggestions about ways to meaningfully celebrate b’nai mitzvahs on Zoom.

“We are still sticking with our core—what is happening in this coming of age event,” reports Brenner, “But now, we are working with families as they plan an on camera event that requires creativity and being engaging in a virtual environment.”

ZOOM B-MITZVAHS have become the norm, especially in non-Orthodox synagogues where use of technology on Shabbat is generally permitted. Given the increased popularity and need for guidance, Brenner and Pamela Barkley, Director of Strategic Implementation, wrote the Moving Traditions guide.

“Families were wrestling with the question of ‘How do we celebrate b’nai mitzvah online and still make it joyous, authentic and meaningful?” report Brenner and Barkley.

While some families have opted to postpone bar and bat mitzvahs until it is safe to gather in larger groups and celebrate in person, many synagogues and families have gotten creative. Zoom b-mitzvahs continue to evolve. The Moving Tradition guide has been useful in the process, offering such tips as “create the sacred space you want” (create a handmade banner to put in the background, create a bima that has a special table cloth and family heirlooms), put welcome questions in the chat (“How do you know the b-mitzvah family?”), invite guests to take selfie screenshots and put in a Dropbox, have family virtually “pass” the Torah from Zoom box to Zoom box, have friends throw candy – at your home from a distance or at the camera in their own homes!

Through the process of planning Zoom b-mitzvahs, Brenner notes that families have become less reliant on professionals, they are more open to rituals and they are asking what parts they can do at home. And they are finding the process to be very meaningful. The Bregmans worked closely with Romemu clergy yet remained extremely active, made important decisions and took responsibility for nearly every aspect of the bar mitzvah.

THE BAR mitzvah planning process and the bar mitzvah day were joyous yet had its stressful moments. Daniel’s sisters made a banner, and hats were delivered to nearly 300 guests.

“I was stressed out about the usual things – writing the dvar Torah, losing his place in the Torah…” reports Eleanor. In the end, it was a fairly “typical” bar mitzvah – with some wonderful additions.
“He did what he would have done—he studied his portion, read the Torah, delivered his d’var Torah.” Eleanor was delighted. “It was what it should be and was all about.”
And many additional people were able to join from a distance.
“There were all these people we could invite – Israeli friends and family in England and France who would have never been able to come,” notes Eleanor.

The bar mitzvah consisted of more than just a Shabbat morning service. Daniel put on tefillin with his father and uncles on Friday. There was a family Shabbat dinner Friday night, and a family celebration on Saturday night.
And Daniel hardly felt like he missed out on a “real bar mitzvah.” He reports, “It was a lot less pressure; online was so much easier!” He also enjoyed the tech aspects (“it was pretty cool”) and being lifted up on a chair at the Saturday night family bonfire.

All of the important aspects of bar mitzvah were there for the parents as well. Peter felt it was important for Daniel to have the experience – like his sisters – of delivering his dvar Torah “not to an empty room, but feeling like he had a real sense of a congregation.” Peter acknowledges that the experience is a “little stressful” and “requires maturity,” but felt “stepping in front of the community and showing up with scholarliness” was an important one. Toward that end, he located seven screens around the house so Daniel could deliver his speech to 300 unique faces. The family also added such tech features as three cameras, providing guests with a Torah view, back and forward views. In the end, both parents agreed. “It far exceeded our expectations, and it felt like a lot less pressure.”
Eleanor and Peter are not alone in feeling the bar mitzvah was a refreshing “back to basics.”

“In some strong way, educators and clergy got their wish,” observes Barkley.
“B-mitzvahs had gotten out of hand and become commercial. Now, it is focused only on the ceremony and the immediate family. Hopefully, after COVID, clergy can help families understand that, even when you can turn it back over to clergy, it can still be personalized and boiled down to its core – passing the Torah through the generations, reading Torah, delivering a d’var Torah and thanking family.”

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Sometimes what happens in Vegas shouldn’t just stay in Vegas. Levi Harlig’s extraordinary bar mitzvah is one of them.

Levi gave a flawless reading of Parshat Naso, the longest Torah portion of the year, and delivered a Chassidic discourse in Yiddish and Hebrew last Shabbat morning at Chabad of Green Valley/Henderson in Las Vegas. The following evening, the 13-year-old sang and drummed for three hours with entertainer Avraham Fried at a community-wide celebration at the Four Seasons Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip.

That would be an exciting experience for any bar mitzvah boy. But for members of the community who have known Levi since birth, the accomplishment was nearly miraculous.

When Levi was 15 months old, his mother, Chaya Harlig, co-director with her husband, Rabbi Mendy Harlig, of Chabad of Green Valley/Henderson, realized that something was not quite right about their son. “He wasn’t making eye contact or following directions. We got him into all kinds of therapies right away—occupational therapy, speech therapy and more.” Three months later, the Harligs learned that Levi had autism. He has difficulties with personal space and reading social cues, and he often focuses on topics of interest to him but not necessarily to other people.

“My husband took it a lot harder than I did,” said Chaya. “I think women have more bitachon [faith]. We set out to make Levi the best Levi he can be!”

In response to her husband’s concerns about where Levi would go to school, whether he would have a bar mitzvah and other issues related to Levi’s future, Chaya reassured him. “He will have a bar mitzvah, he will get married, and he will use his talents. He is really special!”

Harlig quickly realized that his wife was right. Levi has extraordinary talents, including perfect pitch and what his parents refer to as “audiographic memory.” Levi is able to remember essentially anything he hears, including songs, speeches, conversations he has heard in synagogue or around the Shabbat table.

The bar mitzvah boy shares Torah learning at the celebration. (Photo: Norina Kaye)

The bar mitzvah boy shares Torah learning at the celebration. (Photo: Norina Kaye)

Rabbi Harlig began including Levi in the life of the synagogue from an early age. “Each Yom Kippur, I would give my talk and then find a song in English connected to the sermon for Levi to sing. There was not a dry eye in the shul!” Levi regularly leads the congregation in prayer, and he greets congregants by name, upon arrival—often in a loud voice from up on the bimah!

Levi’s important role in the synagogue has allowed members of the community to become comfortable with a person with disabilities. “Levi is bringing people into the Henderson Chabad. He has a warm smile and welcomes everyone!” reports his father.

Wayne Krygier, a member of the Las Vegas Chabad community since relocating from Canada in 1989, concurs. “Levi is the heart and soul of the synagogue. The shul is his life—he feels so at home here!” Krygier jokes that Levi’s greeting everyone in a loud voice as they enter serves as an incentive to arrive on time.

Dr. George Harouni, a local dentist and regular Chabad of Henderson attendee, observes, “People are now accustomed to seeing someone like Levi. He has been part of the community since birth; no one thinks of him as being different.”

When Levi’s bar mitzvah approached, his grandfather, Rabbi Kalman Shor, who also serves as a rabbi for the Chabad of Henderson community, taught him Torah cantillation and sat with him for regular practice sessions. He notes that Levi’s musical talents made his job “much, much easier—once he learns it, he remembers it.” The congregation was clearly moved at the bar mitzvah. “They thought it was beautiful and emotional. And they were impressed that he made no mistakes.”

Jeff Berkow, a retired South African-born businessman and longtime active volunteer in Chabad of Henderson reports: “Levi was flawless! He sang the trope [cantillation] like a chazzan with 30 years of experience. People were amazed!”

Singing with Avraham Fried. (Photo: Norina Kaye)

Singing with Avraham Fried. (Photo: Norina Kaye)

High Praise From a Noted Singer

Levi’s bar mitzvah celebration continued with an Avraham Fried concert, attended by 300 people, a natural choice given Fried’s musical talents and personal qualities. Harlig explains, “He is a beautiful singer, a caring person, and he always showed love for Levi. I figured people would see them sing together, love it and get inspired. They were on a high.”

Fried reflects on the special Shabbat and evening noting, “I knew this bar mitzvah would be very special and memorable but, boy, this was out of the park! Levi loves music. He sings beautifully, and has a great ear and rhythm. He knows all my songs exactly as they appear on the CD. Every musical line and harmony, every place where the song modulates, and the intros and endings, not to mention every special inflection that I sing! We sang so many songs together—Hebrew and English. Levi was conducting the orchestra and was totally in charge. I am lucky to have met Levi years ago. I’m lucky he invited me to his special celebration. I’m very happy he has such good taste in music!”

The community’s embrace of Levi and inclusion of people with disabilities extends beyond one special Shabbat. The Harligs and the community dream of making Chabad of Green Valley/Henderson the “central address” in Las Vegas for including people with disabilities. “Going forward, we hope to continue showing the importance of inclusion, which Chabad has been doing for many years—unconditional love for all humans,” says Harlig.

Father and grandfather listen to the bar mitzvah boy. (Photo: Norina Kaye)

Father and grandfather listen to the bar mitzvah boy. (Photo: Norina Kaye)

Harouni is excited about Chabad’s potential to become even more welcoming to people with disabilities. “Inclusion will be a great addition to our shul. We could be a real center to offer people with disabilities a sense of belonging and an opportunity to be a part of the community.”

Berkow, who assists Harlig in running Chabad, proudly notes, “I want our Chabad to be theshul of inclusion, the place that caters to people with special needs and where inclusion is the centerpiece.” He also hopes Chabad of Green Valley/Henderson will serve as a satellite to the already successful Friendship Circle 15 miles to the north.

Chaya Harlig notes that Chabad recently purchased land, and future plans include Levi’s Place, where people can come for homework help, tutoring, programming and friendship. “We will have a community center serving many families. We will be inclusive and work together with all children on all levels.” She continues to hear of the impact that Levi has had on the Las Vegas Jewish community. “Because of him, people are becoming more religious, closer to the synagogue and Hashem.” She notes that she knows other shluchim families with children with disabilities, and that Chabad offers resources and support.

(Photo: Norina Kaye)

(Photo: Norina Kaye)

Inclusion Initiative a Welcome Partner

Rabbi Harlig has found a natural partner in his mission towards greater inclusion the Ruderman Chabad Inclusion Initiative (RCII), directed by Dr. Sarah Kranz-Ciment. RCII is dedicated to building on the philosophy and mission of Chabad-Lubavitch by providing Chabad communities around the globe the education and resources they need to advance inclusion of people with disabilities. RCII engages Chabad’s network of resources to create a culture of inclusion so that all Jews feel welcomed, supported and valued throughout their entire lifecycle.

RCII is producing a song, a music video and an inclusive mural that shows that everyone belongs. It has also developed an an online bar and bat mitzvah guide, titled “Practical Ideas for Inclusive Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.”

Kranz-Ciment is proud of the work of the Harligs, their community and of Levi’s bar mitzvah, which she notes was “an opportunity to publicly show and make a statement about his many talents.” She continues, “Every Jewish soul is meaningful, and is obligated to be Jewish in the best way he or she can. The Rebbe said, ‘Your birthday is the day Hashem decided the world can’t exist without you. Inclusion is a chance to bring this to the forefront and show that what each person can do is valuable.’ All of us have a place in Judaism.”

(Photo: Norina Kaye)

(Photo: Norina Kaye)
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A couple of years ago, I became aware of the sad fact that many Tikvah campers had not celebrated their becoming bar/bat mitzvah. It seemed natural that all children regardless of ability or disability–celebrated b’nai mitzvah. I therefore added the following questions on our Tikvah application; it was my hope that simply seeing these questions would encourage prospective Tikvah applicants to stop and consider that every person becomes bar/bat mitzvah, and every person can celebrate bar/bat mitzvah.

Please describe how you decided to mark your child’s becoming bar/bat mitzvah. (in shul, in Israel, Shabbat vs. non Shabbat, special service?). How did you reach this decision?  If your child did not celebrate his/her bar/bat mitzvah, what factors influenced your decision. We have proudly celebrated many Tikvah and inclusion program bar and bat mitzvahs at Camp Ramah, and we have heard moving stories of bar and bat mitzvahs celebrated in various home communities. We will continue encouraging Tikvah families to explore the many possibilities for marking their child’s b’nai mitzvah.

I was delighted to attend the bar mitzvah of Max, a young man with autism, this past Sukkot Sunday. His mother, Helene, is very appreciative that a current Tikvah mother shared the story of the bar mitzvah of her son also a young man with autism. The Tikvah mothers encouragement, her willingness to share her sons bar mitzvah learning program as well as the details of the bar mitzvah service inspired Helene. Helene in turn worked closely and collaboratively with her own synagogue, Town and Village Synagogue, in Manhattan. The rabbi, cantor and community welcomed Max with open arms as they planned a creative bar mitzvah which was appropriate for Max. (I was lucky to be part of the bar mitzvah teaching team!).

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When I started teaching Max, it was unclear if he’d even set foot in the synagogue on his bar mitzvah day. As his parents explain in this beautiful, moving video, Max loves “Blues Clues” and is motivated by French fries. Aliyah l’torah and d’var torah were not likely to be part of Max’s bar mitzvah–we did not know at first what a Max bar mitzvah might look like. Max is a young man with autism and limited expressive language.

After several sessions working with Max in his home—singing songs, clapping, reading stories and putting “Blues Clues” on such objects as challah, candle sticks and a kipah, we began taking Max to his synagogue, Town and Village Synagogue in Manhattan, to meet with Cantor Shayna Postman. The synagogue had never celebrated the bar mitzvah of a boy with autism, but they were open to working with Max and his family.

Shayna knew of Max’s love of music and began playing guitar for and with Max. Max enjoyed looking at Shayna’s mouth as she sang—and he had a special pick for strumming on her guitar. Together, they sang the Shema. And played drums for Halelu. Little by little, it seemed Max just might celebrate his bar mitzvah in the shul.

On the Sunday of Chol Ha Moed Sukkot, Max entered the synagogue—with his IPad and headphone. He didn’t agree to wear a tie or jacket, but he did wear nice khaki pants, a white shirt and a kipah. The cantor welcomed the guests, and his parents told Max it was time to put away the Ipad. His family presented Max with a tallis, which he wore proudly. He carried a small torah, shook a lulav and etrog (for his Sunday of Sukkot bar mitzvah), and stood at the torah offering one word answers to the cantor’s question about things he loved (“mommy, daddy, music, French fries, baby sitter Stacy…”). 

While Max did not say the Torah blessings, read from the Torah or deliver a d’var torah, Max truly became bar mitzvah that day. The cantor’s love for Max was obvious to the fifty guests in attendance. She bothered to get to know Max and appreciated Max’s abilities while also understanding his limitations. 

Cantor Postman delivered a beautiful mi sheberach prayer for Max. My hope and prayer is that more rabbis and cantors will continue to create caring communities where the Max’s of this world will have a Jewish home.

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