On June 27, 2001, a single mother and her son landed at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel for a two-week vacation. The plan was that she would go to a seminary and he would go to day camp. Neither of them knew a soul in Israel, nor did they know any Hebrew and next to nothing about Judaism.
Six years later, to the date, nearly 200 people, mostly Israeli and mostly religious, celebrated the boy’s Bar Mitzvah at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens. This is a story of spiritual rags to riches, of a good woman who has found the right path, and has learned to apply all her goodness and giving to a Torah life. And while this type of thing is not uncommon in Jerusalem, it is still wonderful to encounter further evidence of G-d’s creating something from nothing.
As the mother and son painstakingly learned the aleph-bet that first summer and said their first words of thanks to the Almighty, we, the people around them, adopted them. When the mother decided not to go back to America, we enveloped them into our hearts and into our lives.
While our children all played together, on Shabbat or during the week, we answered both routine halachic questions as well as metaphysical ones about existence, Midrash and the Land of Israel. The women helped the mother with Kashrut; the men helped the boy in shul. Seminary joined hands with ulpan, camp evolved into yeshiva for the boy – their choice of neighborhood became permanent as the family put down ever-lengthening roots.
As the years passed, we noticed that both mother and son were giving at least as much as they had been receiving. In the beginning the mother and son were invited out every Shabbat. Now she hosts Shabbat meals, lectures, concerts and other gatherings in their home. Everyone in their building knows that their apartment is open to all: Come borrow (books, anything), see (the rabbit, the giant terrace) learn (about lots of things) or lean (on her strong shoulder).
Everyone knows there is enough gas in her car for every possible contingency, whether it’s a ride to a doctor, the store or just to get a breath of fresh air. Once we drove to Ma’aleh Adumim, a lovely garden city on the edge of the Judean desert; she had never been there before. Let’s go! So we went – just like that.
She has helped people in need, having learned how to both give and receive, when she first arrived in Israel and to Judaism. Her regular volunteer work at a soup kitchen, in a poor haredi neighborhood, just barely skims the surface of a life of giving and doing for others. This is a woman who has learned enough Hebrew to help English speakers (who have lived here longer than she has) with many tasks they would otherwise not be able to complete. This is a woman who has driven around Jerusalem picking up and delivering prepared food for sick people. The list is very long.
In a valley behind the Givat Ram campus of Hebrew University, the Botanical Gardens include twisting paths between trees and bushes, their Latin and Hebrew names posted on signs beside them. Hints of herbs tickle the senses. At the bottom is a lake with swans and ducks skimming the water around tall bulrushes. A breeze plays on the trees, and the band plays quiet Klezmer music. Couples arrive, wish Mazal Tov, and take a romantic walk around the lake. The children play on monkey bars at the far end, run around the lake and answer their cell phones when their parents can no longer make eye contact with them.
This venue is perfect for a family that loves to go hiking and camping during school vacations. Needless to say, they have almost always taken friends with them, whether up to the Golan Heights, down to Eilat, and everywhere else in Israel.
We daven Minchah just before a blazing sunset, and then the festivities begin. Music and lively dancing follow the speeches. There is confetti in the air.
To all the guests this is much more than a Bar Mitzvah. It is as much a tribute to the boy’s mother and their spiritual victories as it is to her son who has grown right before our eyes into a true Torah Jew. The mother has thanked us all for coming. As she speaks, we whisper around the table that it is we who should be thanking her.