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Bar Mitzvah Bookends

Parashat Behukotai, the final Torah portion of the Book of Leviticus, was the portion from the Torah read by my first ever Bar Mitzvah student, Jeff Sovelove, 45 years ago.

I love the opening verses of this portion because they contain words that represent our highest hope as Jews and as human beings: V’ain Mahreed, “None shall cause fear,” or, more popularly: “None shall make them afraid.” (Leviticus 26:6)

The verse appears 11 times in the Hebrew Bible, most famously as the climatic line of Micah’s famous prophecy, “Everyone shall sit under their vine and under their fig tree, and none shall make them afraid.” (Micah 4:4)

We dream of, and hopefully, we work for a world where people have no reason to fear.

I had not seen Jeff since we left Columbia, MD in 1986, but miraculously we reconnected in 1999, and to my delight he appeared at HUC in New York when I received my honorary DD degree that year.

I have not seen him since that day, but I think of him often.

He worked so hard to prepare for his Bar Mitzvah. I was and am so proud of him.

I thought of Jeff a lot during the six months I worked with Ben Uslan, my most recent Bar Mitzvah candidate. Ben lives in North Carolina and is the grandson of two of our current congregants in Sanibel, Florida.  After visiting last year, Ben and his parents asked if was possible to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah with us. 

Ben too worked hard, learned much, and I am equally proud of him.

He is likely, (given the demographics of Bat Yam Temple of the Islands, a congregation consisting largely of retirees that I now serve) the last thirteen-year-old Bar Mitzvah candidate I shall see for a while. I think of him and Jeff, therefore, as my “Bookend B’nai Mitzvah Students.”

In between them I have tried to nurture a love for our tradition in hundreds of pre-adolescents entrusted to my care.

By no means have I always been successful but I always gave each student my best effort to help him or her have the most meaningful experience possible.

For me, “meaningful” does not equate to the number of verses the student prepares or how beautifully he or she chants from the Torah or leads the service.

Many students – Ben and Jeff included – preferred to read with expression and feeling rather than chant.  I always felt and I still believe that what a child learns and retains about the content and meaning of her or his Torah and Haftarah portion is MUCH more significant than the manner in which he or she presents it on one special day.

As my students know I expect them to remember forever the content and even some of the key vocabulary of their portions. I am gratified that many do. I am glad too, that many still connect with me on Facebook and share with me lessons from their Torah portions when I wish them a happy birthday. 

I hope some who are in the area will attend on November 1 when I speak at Temple Isaiah, my first congregation, as part of their fiftieth anniversary celebration. It will mean so much to me to see any of them who will come.

When Jeff became a Bar Mitzvah, Vickie and I were a young couple, and we had not yet had children. As Ben read from the Torah our older children were already choosing dates and planning details of their first child’s Bar Mitzvah.

How did the years pass so quickly?

As for our grandchildren, Vickie and I pray that when each one comes to the Torah, he or she will look at the day as more than another milestone. Rather we hope they see it as the beginning of a life long encounter with our venerable tradition that will inspire each of them – in his or her own way – to work for a world in which V’ain mahreed, a world in which no one any where shall cause any one else to be afraid.

5 thoughts on “Bar Mitzvah Bookends

  1. How well I remember Jeff’s Bar Mitzvah. I was present and he did a marvelous job. All of your students thrive particularly because they know that if you saw Jeff today you would ask him questions about his portion and haftorah. You make a bar mitzvah an experience that no student will forget and will remember the relevant information and have wonderful thoughts about the experience.

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