It is a job to celebrate with 3 families in two weeks–all close on the Jewish Calendar to the holiday of Purim. Two will be on Shabbat in synagogues with the appropriate precautions (masks, distancing, aliyahs from behind plexiglas, limits on numbers of guests, “to go” kiddush boxes); one will be family only in a home with me and Zoom-producer in person and with masks–and in costumes for Purim megillah reading.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.”
Every Jewish man remembers his bar mitzvah.
Some even remember parts of their haftarah. Rarely does this ‘feat’ get them anywhere in life. Not the case for New York’s NBC TV sports anchor and reporter, Bruce Beck.
Bruce grew up in Livingston, New Jersey, 25 miles southwest of Manhattan. Following a traditional, pretty much unremarkable, bar mitzvah in 1969, he attended Ithaca College in upstate New York and became a sports broadcaster. Beck has been the weekend sports anchor for News 4 New York for the past 11 years.
As part of Beck’s ‘dream job,’ he has covered Super Bowl XLII, the World Series, the NBA finals, the Stanley Cup Finals, The US Open Tennis Championship, the US Open Golf Championship, the NCAA Final Four and the Kentucky Derby.
Nothing, however, he maintains, compares to his’s coverage of the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, when windsurfer Gal Friedman became the first
Israeli to ever win an Olympic gold medal.
“I was down at the windsurfing venue trying to get an interview,” reports Beck. “The way it works is that you wait in the mixed zone, a little control area behind fences, with all of the international reporters.”
Beck was waiting patiently when all reporters were told that Gal Friedman would not be coming through the mixed zone.
After the 1972 Munich massacre, Israeli athletes simply do not grant en-masse interviews.
But Beck was determined. He called Jerusalem and got a hold of Israel’s press liaison in an attempt to find out where in Athens the Israeli delegation was staying. He was then given the name of the local Israeli press secretary in Greece.
After a lot of schmoozing, and his relevation of the fact that he was Jewish, the pleasant, persistent reporter was given the name of the hotel.
When Beck arrived at the location, the prospects of meeting Friedman seemed slim. Again, all the reporters were waiting behind a fence.
“I just needed to get in to interview Friedman. What could I do? I couldn’t speak or read Hebrew very well. I wasn’t a very good Hebrew school student. But I have a very good memory. I am a reporter. And to this day, I remembered my entire haftarah by heart.
“So I started singing my haftarah, the special one for Machar Chodesh – the lovely story of David and Jonathan – for the Israeli press secretary. He was so moved that he said, ‘Bruce, come in, we want you to talk to Gal.’”
And Beck got the exclusive – he was the only reporter in the world granted access to Gal Friedman.
“Gal knew the whole story. He knew that I sang for the press secretary. He laughed. We talked about Munich, the fight for survival of Jews in their homeland, what it would be like to hear Hatikvah that night as he received his gold medal, etc.”
Beck looks back fondly on the story as a rare moment when a reporter’s religious background actually opened an important door, and when the reporter became part of his own story.
“Journalists from all around the world wanted to know why Gal Friedman was such a big story, and how I was picked to interview him.”
“Here I was in Athens, Greece – 4,500 miles from home, in the cradle of Western Civilization – never prouder to be an American – never prouder to be a Jew.”
Two young men from Connecticut recently celebrated their b’nai mitzvah in a special way – dedicated to Righteous Gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust.
Joshua Genn of Greenwich, and Adam Ehrman-Shapiro of Litchfield, chose to participate in the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous’ (JFR) Bar/Bat Mitzvah Twinning Program.
When Joshua was preparing for his Oct. 9, 2006, bar mitzvah during Sukkot at Congregation Agudath Sholom in Stamford, he began investigating ways to make his bar mitzvah more meaningful.
Joshua, a seventh-grade student at the Westchester/Fairfield Hebrew Academy, read through descriptions of many Righteous Gentiles on the JFR Web site and found them to be fascinating.
“I liked Irena Sendler,” he said. “Even though she was not Jewish, she got people out of the Warsaw Ghetto and smuggled weapons to people.”
The entry for Sendler on the JFR Web site notes that she was a health worker who had access to the Warsaw Ghetto and led hundreds of Jewish children out of the ghetto to safe hiding places. Sendler, a member of the Polish underground, helped smuggle children (sometimes sedated) in potato sacks and coffins. She was eventually arrested, imprisoned and sentenced to death in October 1943 – but she was saved when members of the Polish underground bribed one of the Germans to stop the execution. She is currently in her 90s, lives in Warsaw, Poland, and reportedly doesn’t think of herself as a hero: “I want the Jewish community to know that there was a resistance and a spirit among the Jews in the ghetto.”
Joshua reported that friends came up to him to say, “We think we’ll do a twinning bar mitzvah as well!”
Joshua’s parents, Ireland-born Alan and England-born Michelle, were pleased with Joshua’s decision to support JFR.
“Even ‘Schindler’s List’ didn’t highlight how many Righteous Gentiles saved Jews. It is a bit of a forgotten cause, and the organization [which supports people who, by definition, are in their 80s and 90s] has a limited time frame and needs immediate help,” said Alan Genn.
Saving One Life
One month after Joshua’s bar mitzvah, Adam Ehrman-Shapiro shared the story of another Righteous Gentile, Vladimir Chernovol, at his Nov. 11, 2006 bar mitzvah at the Chabad of Northwest Connecticut-LitchfieldJewish Community Center. Adam’s mother, Judith, began searching online for organizations so that Adam could “do some type of community service and give back to the community.”
“I was deeply touched by the work and mission of JFR. It is a very Jewish idea – to save one life is to save the whole world,” she said.
This phrase appears on the cover of the personalized invitations that many families participating in the twinning program, including the Ehrman-Shapiro family, choose for their children’s b’nai mitzvah.
The Ehrman-Shapiros have celebrated the b’nai mitzvah of two sons in two years, and both have participated in the JFR twinning program.
“These Righteous Gentiles risked life and limb to save our people in Europe with full knowledge that they were risking their lives and the lives of their families,” Judith said.
Chernovol was a Ukrainian teacher out for a walk in 1942 when he encountered Gregory Lantsman, a Jewish pilot in the Soviet Army whose plane was shot down over the Ukraine. Chernovol learned that Lantsman was Jewish and that the Germans had already killed his family. Chernovol quickly realized that Lantsman would surely be caught and killed. He immediately offered to take him in. Chernovol worked hard to obtain Ukrainian identity papers for Lantsman, but the Germans soon began forcibly taking young Ukrainian men for hard labor. Though Lantsman was selected, he managed to escape and return to Chernovol’s home, where he hid until liberation in May 1944. Chernovol is in his 80s and still lives in the Ukraine.
Adam was pleased with his bar mitzvah and with the twinning program.
Said Adam, an eighth-grader who is home-schooled, “I thought it was a nice thing to do, and my friends came up to me and told me they thought it was cool.”
Following a dinner party and an evening of sports, Adam was back at shul early the next morning to put on his tefillin.
“Adam participates in the Tefilin Bank, where you received a free set of tefillin if you agree to put them on daily,” said his mother.
Both young men and their families agree that participating in the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Program of the JFR enhanced and gave meaning to their b’nai mitzvah.
JFR was created in 1986 to provide financial assistance to non-Jews who risked their lives and often the lives of family members to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust. Today, the JFR supports more than 1,600 aged and needy rescuers in 28 countries, and they run a Holocaust teacher education program for middle and high school teachers and Holocaust center personnel.