Israeli boys become bar mitzvah with help from local friends
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Israeli boys become bar mitzvah with help from local friends

A white dove alighted in a crevice of the Western Wall on a hot Monday morning in July. Families from Israel and abroad were gathering for sons’ bar mitzvah ceremonies.

A guest pointed out the bird to the women around her. “A dove of peace! It is a good sign.”

Dina certainly needed a good sign. A mother of six, Dina was at Jerusalem’s holiest spot with her son Yarin and daughter Danielle, who will turn 13 in August. They are not twins, but two of triplets. (Last names have been omitted to protect the families’ privacy.)

Dina and Danielle stood on chairs looking into the men’s area as Yarin put on the tefillin that the third triplet, Tamir, had requested when he was only 11. He had been too young to start wrapping the ritual leather straps around his arm and head during prayer, but not too young to understand that cancer would kill him before his bar mitzvah.

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Yarin is flanked by Rabbi Yehuda Borer and Chaim Shalom. Abigail Klein Leichman

As Tamir’s close-knit Moroccan family dealt with the child’s progressive illness, an Israeli educator in Teaneck called Tamir regularly to pray with him. Rabbi Uzi Rivlin sent the tefillin that Tamir wanted, and he saw to the family’s needs through his Scholarship Fund for the Advancement of Children in Israel (Keren Milgot le-Kiddum Yeladim be-Yisrael).

Last September, Rivlin told The Jewish Standard that the fund was expending about $100,000 per year to provide food, clothing, school supplies, and furnishings to some 500 Israeli 5- to 18-year-olds in difficult straits. The clientele now number closer to 1,000.

Keren Milgot arranged the celebration at the Wall this day, as Yarin – in keeping with tradition – donned tefillin for the first time, a month before his birthday. It was also the first time for Ohr, a 12-year-old Ethiopian boy aided by the fund. Ohr’s widowed mother and grandmother watched with broad smiles from the women’s section.

Rivlin’s wife, Jenny, was there as well. A teacher at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, she told Danielle that a photograph of Tamir hangs in her Teaneck home. The Rivlins forge a bond with many Keren Milgot kids; one teen boarded with them this year while attending the Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck.

“Sometimes the connection is so close,” said Uzi Rivlin. “When Tamir passed away two years ago, I was not even able to work. It was like my own son had died.”

Exactly three years ago, Rivlin had arranged transportation for Tamir and his family to come to the Wall to pray. A kabbalist had added another name to Tamir’s. “We hoped the gates of heaven would open,” said Rivlin.

That moving scene was not far from Dina’s mind as she watched her surviving 12-year-old mark this milestone. Her husband died just one year after Tamir, apparently of a broken heart. In his stead next to Yarin were Chaim Shalom, chairman of Rivlin’s fund in Israel, and Rabbi Yehuda Borer, an active participant in the project. Dina strongly felt that Tamir was at Yarin’s side.

“I plainly see him,” she said with a mixture of pride and grief. “He is always standing next to us. I was privileged to be his mother, and I am privileged to bring up these children,” she said, nodding at Danielle and her siblings in attendance. “They keep me strong.”

Later this month, Danielle, Yarin, and Ohr will fly to America accompanied by two older beneficiaries of the fund. They’ll spend some time with the Rivlins and attend a session of Camp Moshava in Pennsylvania. On Aug. 13, Rivlin will take them to Cong. Ahavat Achim in Fair Lawn for Yarin’s bar mitzvah Shabbat. They’ll return for Ohr’s bar mitzvah just before going home.

“Ohr’s bar mitzvah should be in September,” Rivlin explained, “but his mother is not able to do it for him. She works night and day [at an Eilat hotel] to support her family. So we’ll make his bar mitzvah, a little early, in Fair Lawn. He had no Jewish background, so we arranged with a [volunteer] rabbi to educate him.”

Jack Bickel, the synagogue member coordinating both events, is expecting an emotional experience as Yarin recites Kaddish for the first time for his brother and father. “Then, two weeks after that, we’ll have the kids back and Ohr will discuss what it was like for his family to come from Ethiopia to Israel.”

Ahavat Achim has been hosting Keren Milgot children for three summers. “People here view it as a privilege,” said Bickel. “We try to find Hebrew-speakers to host them.” The shul will sponsor a kiddush and pay for activities while the children are with the Rivlins.

During the Jerusalem service, Ohr’s older brothers and Yarin’s older brother – all in Israel Defense Forces uniforms – were called to chant blessings over the Torah scroll. Both families afterward went to meet Israel’s Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger and enjoyed a picnic in Sacher Park.

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