(Kobi Amsalem)
Colel Chabad bar mitzvah for orphans

A spiritually meaningful and joyous program for orphaned boys, hosted annually by Colel Chabad organization in Jerusalem, was the brainchild of a widowed father of 13.

At just seven years of age, Maor S. from the southern Israeli town of Kiryat Milachi lost his mother to cancer.  Each year, his grandmother and aunt struggle to find the emotional strength to celebrate his birthday with the happiness the boy deserves, but it has always been difficult. They were all the more concerned when it came time to prepare for Maor’s Bar Mitzva.

His aunt then heard about an initiative sponsored by Colel Chabad that invites orphaned boys to celebrate their bar mitzvahs with others who had lost a parent.

On Monday, March 30, Maor joined 112 Bar Mitzvah boys at the Western Wall in Jerusalem to commemorate the occasion. The program was designed to ensure that the boys and their families would truly enjoy the milestone event. All expenses were covered by donors to the organization.

Economic, Cultural and Geographic Diversity

Many of the families in attendance hailed from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and the prospect of such a complete celebration would otherwise not have been possible.

Upon arrival in Jerusalem, each boy was given a brand-new set of Talit (prayer shawl) and Tefillin (phylacteries) – a purchase which on its own costs hundreds of dollars. The boys also received a new dress tie and kippah (skullcap), which they wore proudly as they were danced down from the Western Wall plaza to the Kotel, where they made the traditional blessing over the Torah for the first time.

The families represented at the event were as diverse as Israeli society itself.  Boys travelled from as far away as Kiryat Shmona at the northern border to Eilat in the south. Although many of the children came from observant backgrounds, for others it was their first exposure to an organized religious service.

The one uniting factor was the loss of at least one parent.  Some had lost a mother or father to illness, and others to tragic accidents, terror attacks or, in some cases, suicide.

Every effort was made to focus on the happiness of the day and to leave the child’s pain aside.

The program is in its seventh year.

Similar Program for Girls

Colel Chabad, which is the longest-running charity in a continuous basis in Israel, was founded in 1788 by the first Rebbe (spiritual leader) of the worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch movement. The idea for the program was conceived by Rabbi Yitzchak Mishan of Brazil, a father of 13 who had lost his wife to illness and wanted to ensure that his own son, and others like him, would have a joyous and meaningful Bar Mitzvah celebration.  What started with 10 boys has now grown to 113, and a similar program exists for orphaned Bat Mitzvah girls.

“During times of happiness, I know that these families feel that something is missing in their lives. So our goal was to ensure that these children know that they are not alone, that they can be truly happy and that life will go on despite the obvious pain and loss they are feeling,” Rabbi Mishan said.

Rabbi Sholom Duchman, international director of Colel Chabad, explained that the Bar Mitzvah program is just one facet of a national effort that has already reached close to 1,800 orphaned boys and girls.  “On days like today, we want these children to feel the joy that any normal child experiences on their bar mitzvah,” he said.

Personalized Gifts and Blessings

After the ceremony in the Old City, the children and their families were  taken by bus to the lavishly decorated Jewish International Convention Center, where the guests were treated to a gourmet meal and musical entertainment. Many dignitaries participated.

Each boy was brought up to the stage and presented with a personalized gift and given a special blessing.

Eliana Zilberman, a mother of six, tearfully spoke about the importance of the day for her son Aviad, whose father Shmulik was killed almost three years ago in a work accident.  She said that Aviad was initially nervous, but when he saw other boys in a similar situation, he quickly warmed up to the idea.

“This event reminded us that people truly care about others. The reality is that for many kids in this situation true happiness is not something they get to feel very often,” Zilberman said.  “But today they felt it, and we will all remain appreciative for the rest of our lives.”

A delegation Bar Mitzvah boys met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his office. Congratulating them, the prime minister shared a message he himself had received from Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, calling on them to use their experiences to become the flame of light that dispels the darkness around them in the world.

By Colel Chabad and United with Israel Staff