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Best Bar Mitzvah Ever

November 11, 2015 | by Rabbi Gershon Unger

For a group of orphans in Jerusalem, celebrating their bar mitzvah is an unimaginable milestone.

The excitement and joy was indescribable last week at Yossi's gala Bar Mitzvah celebration at the Aish Center overlooking the Western Wall. Between the amazing location, outstanding 5-piece band, delicious 5-course meal and illustrious guests, this was one of the best Bar Mitzvahs ever. (video highlights below)

Yossi was 7 years old when he came to live at Zion Orphanage, where I'm a Director. A victim of insufficient warmth in an unstable home, his father had passed away a year earlier. His mother – struggling with drug addiction – was unable to properly care for him.

Yossi lacked peace of mind; his primary concern was just surviving. There was no room for dreaming about what he would want to be when he grows up.

When Israel's Child Welfare Agency brought Yossi to us, he was barely speaking. He was shy, withdrawn and distrustful – especially of adults.

Our first step was to place Yossi in a "Mishpachtone" mini-home. He joined a young, energetic and loving couple who live in an apartment on our Jerusalem campus with both their own young children and a group of 12 orphans ages 7-13. Yossi desperately needed a secure and loving home. As the world's oldest active Jewish orphanage, we provide that new start.

Our next step was to start Yossi communicating, to emerge from his shell. We tried various therapies to build self-esteem: arts and crafts, Krav Maga (Israeli martial arts), playing a musical instrument, computer proficiency, gymnastics.

For Yossi, the answer was our on-campus mini-zoo. He observed our therapist feeding, cuddling and bathing the animals. Yossi was drawn to nurture and communicate with the animals, and began to look outside of himself. He gradually built healthy relationships – first with the animals, then with the adults entrusted to care for him.

Six years later, a different Yossi – confident, caring and happy – celebrated his Bar Mitzvah.

Shoot for the Stars

Every human has infinite, God-given potential. Yet due to circumstances, we are prone to lowered aspirations and self-confidence.

I learned this lesson from the founder of Aish HaTorah, Rabbi Noah Weinberg. He once shared with me that, as a young boy, an illustrious guest stayed in their home in New York. Rabbi Weinberg's older brother Moshe commented: "I want to be like that man when I grow up."

Rabbi Weinberg's father replied: "This man is indeed very accomplished. Yet when he was your age, he aspired to become far greater. If you strive to be like him, you might achieve only a fraction of that aspiration."

Rabbi Weinberg learned from this: "Shoot for the stars, and you'll at least reach the moon."

Our primary goal at Zion Orphanage is to turn challenges into opportunities. Each boy – despite any handicap or rough start in life – can reach his potential and achieve greatness.

I have great hopes for Yossi to follow in the footsteps of Zion Orphanage alumni who've become members of Knesset, mayors of major cities, rabbis, attorneys, teachers and more. It was their early-ingrained "fighting spirit for survival" that remained as they matured and re-entered the world, this time from a position of strength.

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, the distinguished rabbi of the Western Wall, came to Yossi's Bar Mitzvah to offer his blessings for success. Yossi was incredulous with joy, beaming a smile that declared: "Wow! I never dreamed my Bar Mitzvah could be this great. Look what life has to offer!"


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