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How Do You Do a Bar Mitzvah in the Dark?

Did I tell you about the Bar Mitzvah service held on the 112 degree day? And then the lights went out! The Jewish Journal posted my article The Shabbat the Lights Went Out in Calabasas. Read on…

Our synagogue’s name, Or Ami, means “Light of My People.” The name reflects our hope to shine brightly the values and lessons of Torah and Jewish spirituality into our little corner of the world. We are a community of individuals who each carry the light as far as they can.

But a funny thing happened to young Jeffrey Rosenberg on his way to becoming a bar mitzvah on Sept. 1 — the lights went out all over town. Nevertheless, the boy took his first steps by candlelight on the road to becoming a man, and in the process, taught us all what it really meant to be a bar mitzvah.

Lessons Learned While Sweating Profusely

It was hot day in Calabasas. The thermometer was topping out at 112 degrees.

As Jeffrey Rosenberg’s parents came to accept that they would have to forgo the family tradition of watching their child read Torah in their backyard (both sisters Jill and Lynn had given their parents much nachas [joy] at their backyard simchas), we made the decision to move his bar mitzvah service back into our Mureau Road synagogue.

It did not take long to realize how amazing this bar mitzvah experience would be. I sat with Jeffrey and his dad Richard as the decision was finalized. I offered support and counsel to the teen.

I said, “You see, perhaps there is a lesson here on what it means to become a man. When disappointments happen…”

“We need to accept them and find a way to move on,” Jeffrey concluded, without missing a beat.

It was then that I caught a glimpse of why this child, yet to read Torah, had already made the transition onto the path to becoming a man. Just four hours before his ceremony was scheduled to begin, when plans envisioned for more than a year were being upended by devastating heat, this amazing boy found it within himself to wax philosophical.

I arrived at the synagogue early to ensure everything was set: chairs arranged, siddurs laid out, air conditioning set low and working. Jeffrey’s family arrived soon after to snap a few photographs. Although harried by the change in venue, all expected everything to run smoothly from there.

Not five minutes later — a mere 30 minutes before the ceremony was to start — the electricity cut out. With it went the lights, the Ner Tamid (Eternal Light above the Ark) and the air conditioning.

As the Darkness Descended, New Lights Shined

What do you do when Torah needs to be read, but the sanctuary is dark?

Break out the candles.

A yahrtzeit memorial candle was placed above the Ark as our makeshift Ner Tamid, reaffirming God’s presence among us. Rows of votive candles, originally set aside for an upcoming meditational Selichot service, illumined the bimah podium. After a guest returned from the local Albertsons, warm light and sweet fragrance wafted forth from scented tea candles placed on aluminum foil in the aisles. Cantor Doug Cotler’s wife Gail brought over a few more flashlights and a battery-operated lantern so the Torah could be read without worrying about dripping wax.

Guests arrived to a sanctuary that glowed. Delicious hibiscus-flavored lemonade arrived from the caterer to quell our growing thirst. Cantor Cotler and I huddled together to discuss which prayers and songs could be passed over in anticipation of the rising warmth.

Setting a High Bar at the Bar Mitzvah

I looked around for Jeffrey, figuring any 13-year-old might need some calming words as he contemplated chanting Torah by candlelight. Calling out a refrain heard many a time during his wandering-filled life — “Where’s Jeffrey?” — I discovered him smiling happily, posing for pictures and hanging out with relatives and friends. Dark room, air conditioning out, still this kid did not even break a sweat. On this Shabbat, Jeffrey set a high “bar” for maturity at his bar mitzvah, ensuring that we too took it all in stride.

At the last moment, I opened the Ark just to make sure that the Torah was properly rolled. I was met with a gush of cool air. I called over Cantor Cotler and then the bar mitzvah boy. Each experienced the same rush of air. The Ark was the coolest place in the room. As a rabbi, I recall saying that “the words of Torah warm the heart”; I now learned how “cool” Torah really could be.

Jackets removed, we all settled in for a meaningful, though somewhat abbreviated service. Just as the first sounds emerged from the cantor’s guitar, an amazing thing occurred: the electricity — and with it the lights, the Ner Tamid and the air conditioning — miraculously popped back on. Looking back, it was as if God was saying, “Lesson learned. Proceed to manhood.”

Perhaps wanting to enjoy the lemonade we made from lemons, Jeffrey requested that we keep the lights off. And so we did, basking in the unique aura of spirituality created by the candles. He even whispered that we should say all the prayers now that there was no rush.

Jeffrey led us from Chatzi Kaddish through Silent Prayer with confidence and comfort. The room filled with melodies of songs sung, aliyot chanted and sniffles as tears were shed. In the midst of Jeffrey’s d’var Torah (speech), the electricity cut out again. Except for the fact that two pages were out of order in his speech, nothing could trip Jeffrey up. His mother, Katie, and dad, Richard, couldn’t have been prouder.

Blessings for an Amazing Bar Mitzvah Boy

At each bar or bat mitzvah service, I especially look forward to standing before the Ark for a private moment of blessing with the student. Each blessing I craft especially for each individual, taking into account each student’s bar/bat mitzvah process, life challenges, and my hopes for his/her future. I also remind the students that when they began the process, they couldn’t read Hebrew, never read from Torah and were anxious about the path ahead. Now with the service all but concluded, they learned the supreme lesson of becoming a bar/bat mitzvah: that when they put their minds to it, nothing is beyond their reach. Parents and friends often ask what we talk about before the Ark; usually the student and I cherish these words as our own confidential conversation of holiness.

Standing there before the Ark with Jeffrey, I found myself momentarily at a loss for words. What meaningful words could any rabbi possibly say to a young man who never broke a sweat as he faced down multiple challenges?

So I asked him, “How do you think you did?”

Jeffrey nodded his head nonchalantly and answered, “Pretty good.”

I responded, “Yup, you are a bar mitzvah now.” And the words of blessing flowed easily from there.

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