119 Orphans Celebrate Bar Mitzvahs Together at Western Wall

“And the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are within thy gates, shall come, and shall eat and be satisfied; that Hashem thy God may bless thee in all the work of thy hand which thou doest.” Deuteronomy 14:28 (The Israel Bible™)

Jerusalem recently experienced a record-breaking event, the rite-of-passage bar mitzvah celebrations of 119 orphaned boys. Sponsored by Israel’s longest continuously running charity organization, Colel Chabad, the meaningful and emotional day-long festivities were attended by over 1,000 people, including members of Israel’s Knesset, distinguished rabbis, ministers and public figures.

“Jewish children all over the world recognize their bar mitzvah as a momentous event in their lives which is celebrated with family, friends, and festivities,” shared Rabbi Sholom Duchman, Colel Chabad’s International Director, with Breaking Israel News. “For orphans, this joyous occasion can be filled with pain and sadness with their beloved father or mother not in attendance.”

In Hebrew, “bar mitzvah” means “son of the commandments”. Once a Jewish boy reaches the age of 13, he is obligated to keep all Biblical commandments. As this is recognized as the ultimate way to develop into a healthful human being as well as come closer to God, this auspicious time is celebrated. (Girls are obligated to keep all Biblical commandments from the age of 12. They are referred to as a “bat mitzvah”.)

After the ceremony, the boys and their families were treated to a festive banquet. (Courtesy Yisrael Bardugo/Colel Chabad)

Colel Chabad provides each boy with his own mentor all year round. Before the bar mitzvah event, Colel Chabad treated each boy and his living parent to a new clothing shopping spree. Many of the boys are from economically disadvantaged households. Therefore, fresh clothing and new shoes are almost unheard of in their lives and the organization wanted to ensure that the experience be a happy, comfortable and memorable one, down to the last detail.

“Shopping with my son was really a fun and great experience,” said one mother. “Colel Chabad outfitted my son from head to toe, like a prince. My child is so moved by his new shoes that he sleeps with them right by his side.”

There are two common acts which welcome a bar mitzvah to this new stage of life. The first is the wearing of tefillin (phylacteries), which are small black leather cubes containing parchment scrolls inscribed with the Shema prayer and other Biblical passages and long leather straps in order to wrap the cubes around one’s arm and head during weekday morning prayers. This commandments is explicitly written in the Torah several times including Deuteronomy 6:8, “And you shall bind them for a sign upon your arm and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes.”

The Bible commands us to care for those most in need.

Colel Chabad gifted each bar mitzvah boy with his own pair of tefillin,” continued Rabbi Duchman. “As tefillin are extremely costly, we had made protective velvet bags inscribed with each boys name to hold their tefillin.”

For the Jewish boys whose families originated from Arab countries, their custom is to wear a prayer shawl from the time of their bar mitzvah and throughout their lives. Colel Chabad provided these as well.

Personalized tefillin bags for the Bar Mitzvah boys. (Courtesy Yisrael Bardugo/Colel Chabad)

The second way boys celebrate their bar mitzvah is through blessing and often reading from a Torah scroll. In order that each boy feel the uniqueness of his special day, Colel Chabad arranged for each of the 119 boys to have their own prayer service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Each boy was danced down to the Western Wall plaza under a decorated canopy accompanied by drums, trumpets and singing.

This year’s event was sponsored, in part, by the Meromim Fund, the Schlossberg Family, Rabbi Yitzchak Mishan, and donors to Colel Chabad. Held annually since 1992, Rabbi Mishan, a father of 13, first conceived of the program following the loss his wife to illness.

“During times of happiness, I know that these families feel that something is missing in their lives,” he said. “So our goal was to ensure that they know 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.”

Children arrived from all over the Holy Land for this event, many on buses sponsored by Colel Chabad. The unifying force was that each one lost a mother or father, either from illness, tragic accidents, terror attacks, etc.

Colel Chabad helps everyone we can,” noted Rabbi Duchman. “For many of the participants, they had little previous experience with religious ceremonies and this was very uplifting, inspiring and connecting.”

Following the Western Wall services, a festive banquet in the lavishly decorated Jerusalem International Convention Center was held for the bar mitzvah boys along with their families and friends. Not only was everyone treated to a three-course meal, music and praise from dignitaries, Colel Chabad also provided individual family portraits by a number of professional photographers so that each will receive their own souvenir album.

Expressed Rabbi Duchman, “These boys are the future of Israel. It is our job to nurture, protect, teach and celebrate each one of them so that they grow up as happy, contributing citizens of Israel and productive, caring family men.”

To donate to Colel Chabad, please visit here.