Sderot boys become b’nai mitzvah, with a little help from local friends

Sderot boys become b’nai mitzvah, with a little help from local friends

JERUSALEM – A boy named Ariel was supposed to celebrate his bar mitzvah two weeks ago. But Ariel lives in Sderot, where Kassam rockets were falling without respite that week, and his family’s synagogue doesn’t have a bomb shelter. So the disappointed 13-year-old did not get to have his bar mitzvah as planned.

Ariel reads his Torah portion, flanked by his teacher and a classmate. Photos by Yigal Babian

This particular story, however, has a happy ending. This week, thanks to the efforts of the Teaneck-based scholarship fund that has been assisting Ariel, along with Camp Moshava, Ariel had a gala bar mitzvah at the Western Wall and a reception at the Knesset.

The story begins last summer, when Ariel was among several children flown over by the Scholarship Fund for the Advancement of Children in Israel (Keren Milgot le-Kiddum Yeladim be-Yisrael). This fund, run by Rabbis Uzi Rivlin and Moshe Yasgur of Teaneck, has matched some of its hundreds of recipients with host families in Bergen and Westchester counties for the past three summers. For the past two years, children also have been invited to attend a free session of Camp Moshava in Honesdale, Pa. — a coed Zionist camp co-directed by former Teaneck resident Alan Silverman.

Tzion and Ariel, boys from Sderot, celebrate their bar mitzvahs at the Kotel.

In the past, a few of the boys have even celebrated their bar mitzvahs at Cong. Beth Aaron, where Rivlin and Yasgur are members. Last year, Ariel was too young for that. However, Rivlin had ascertained shortly before the children’s arrival that the boy was not halachically Jewish and that he wished to be formally converted, with the approval of his parents.

Ariel underwent a circumcision at a local hospital; a Teaneck mohel donated his services. Then Rivlin and Yasgur brought him to the Teaneck mikvah, where his conversion was completed.

Rivlin told The Jewish Standard that he keeps in close contact with all children helped by Keren Milgot, which provides clothing, food, beds, school supplies, and medical referrals to struggling Israeli families. When he learned that Ariel’s bar mitzvah had been canceled, he mentioned this to Camp Moshava head counselor and co-director Chana Spiegelman, who is a guidance counselor at Yeshivat Ner Tamid in Hashmona’im.

Spiegelman decided on the spot to arrange a substitute bar mitzvah for Ariel on March 10, sponsored by the camp.

"Where there’s a will, there’s a way," Spiegelman said in answer to the question of how she put the event together in such a short time. "When Ariel was at Moshava, he was such a sweet, energetic, and lovely boy, eager to learn about Judaism."

She rented a reception hall at Yeshivat HaKotel, situated right near the Western Wall ("Kotel" in Hebrew). Some of the students at the school’s American program this year are also Moshava counselors and already knew Ariel.

She approached Ariel’s teacher, Rabbi Avi Yifrach, in Sderot and got a list of classmates to invite. Yifrach told her that an Ethiopian boy named Tzion also was waiting to celebrate his bar mitzvah, so he and his family were included on the guest list.

Spiegelman had T-shirts and sweatshirts printed for all the participants and arranged for boys and teachers from her own school and from Lev HaTorah, an American yeshiva program in Ramat Beit Shemesh, to come along.

As the bus from Sderot arrived — carrying the celebrants and their families, along with their classmates and Yifrach and a professional photographer — the large group of welcoming yeshiva students flocked to greet the guests.

"Ariel and Tzion were danced down to the Kotel and Ariel read from the Torah beautifully," reported Spiegelman. "Afterward, Ariel and Tzion were showered with candies and swooped up onto the shoulders of the boys, and they danced them up the stairs to Yeshivat HaKotel."

In addition to a festive meal, a student band performed and there were speeches by Spiegelman, Yifrach, and Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun of Kibbutz HaDati — a longtime supporter of Keren Milgot projects.

"Ariel was too emotional to speak," said Spiegelman, but he joined enthusiastically in the dancing that went on for hours.

Later that afternoon, the bar mitzvah boys and their families, accompanied by Yifrach, were welcomed by dignitaries at the Knesset, in a reception sponsored by Keren Milgot.

Rivlin and Yasgur welcome tax-deductible contributions to help recipients, many of whom live in Sderot. Full educational scholarships are $140, tuition scholarships are $60, textbooks and supplies are $50, and school shoes are $’5. Checks may be made payable to Cong. Beth Aaron, with "Scholarship Fund" in the memo line, and mailed to P.O. Box 1155, Teaneck, NJ 07666.

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