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I Almost Made Myself Cry at the Bar Mitzvah

There we stood, Rabbi and three generations of the Tillis family, preparing to physically pass down the Torah midor lador (from generation to generation).  This primarily Reform Movement tradition makes manifest what is happening in fact and deed: that another young adult is receiving Torah from his ancestors.  At the end of this line of stood a young man Jared, who though he spent his life challenged by special needs and multiple treatments – a rare form of non-convulsive epilepsy, speech therapy, vision therapy, challenges reading and decoding – now stood ready to do what every other 13 year old boy does.  Jared was becoming a Bar Mitzvah. 

I looked out at the crowd of family and friends.  On their faces I saw utter amazement; reflected in their eyes was the wonder that this young man, in spite of all the challenges he faces, had led the prayer service so beautifully.  His Bar Mitzvah teacher, the incomparably talented Diane Townsend, had been by his side, pointing to each transliterated syllable so that he could chant the prayers at his own pace.  Too see how creatively she had retransliterated each word in a way that it would be comprehensible to this specific Bar Mitzvah boy is to witness a master teacher at work.  Yes, we had already each experienced that Shehecheyanu moment, that blessed happening that reminds us all that we were just touched by the miraculous. 

What words could I say which would further capture the holiness before us?  And how to do it in such a way that everyone would understand on their own level: the Bar Mitzvah boy in his specifically special manner of comprehension and the guests who had been touched by the Transcendent? 

We are taught that Torah was revealed in 70 languages at once so that each person could comprehend it.  Who is to say that which languages they were?  Perhaps some were the language understood by a child with special needs. Maybe the simple concepts that a profoundly challenged child could comprehend.

So I told them: We are taught that Torah was given to everyone at Mt. Sinai: the rich and the poor, the strong and the less strong, the healthy and the sick.  Yes, even those who stuttered (Moses), were leprous (later, Miriam), or were beaten down by the challenges of their lives (all the Israelites) received the Holy Torah.

I reminded them, lovingly, that sometimes we doubt who was able to receive Torah, but that as long as there are people who believe (I looked at Mom and Dad and older sister), everyone can grasp hold of the holy books. 

I said a bunch of other words too, but as I looked out at the congregation, seeing not a dry eye in the sanctuary, I started to choke up too, and mumbled something that I cannot remember anymore.

Then we passed Torah down midor lador (from generation to generation) completing the cycle.

Worshippers were moved.  One said, “Jared’s service was the most moving and touching ceremony I have ever been to” while another explained that she “will never forget Jared’s amazing ability to turn an ordinary ritual into a meaningful event that we will carry in our hearts forever.”  

I am left with three profound memories of this Bar Mitzvah service:

  • That this young man, standing on the shoulders of all the Jews who came before him, became a Bar Mitzvah just like the best of them;
  • That we are blessed to have a teacher as skilled as Diane Townsend who finds a way to point each child – no matter how challenged, no matter how reticent – toward Torah;
  • That the Holy One of Blessing (God) blessed us this day by allowing each of us to experience the transcendent holiness of this Bar Mitzvah. 

…Shehecheyanu v’kiy’manu v’higee-anu lazman hazeh – Blessed are You, God … for giving us life, for keeping us in life, and for bringing us to this special moment. 

(BTW, the other Bar Mitzvah boy earlier that day made me proud, amazed, and inspired.  Because he was special too. Not special needs.  Just special, like every child is special.  But that’s another blog post.)

Congregation Or Ami exudes openness and welcoming of families with children with special needs.  Read about it.


  1. Marcy Cameron says:

    I was there in the sanctuary feeling an amazing amount of pride. Pride that Jared, Stacy, David and Nicole were able to overcome years of difficulty to make it to this amazing day. Pride that our synagogue is so open-minded and compromising to allow for this young man to become a Bar Mitzvah in a way meaningful to him and his special needs. A true celebration. Mazel Tov!

  2. Lynn says:

    Rabbi Kipnes…what a wonderful shabbat service. You, Jared, Cantor Cotler, and Diane..truly combined joy, happiness and love into a tradition that we know Jared will continue as he passes the torah to his children and grandchildren. -The Doner Family

  3. David and Stacy Tilliss says:

    We are truly blessed to be a part of the Or Ami family. With the guidance of Rabbi Kipnes, Cantor Cotler and the amazing Diane Townsend our Jared has become a Bar Mitzvah with memories and lessons to last a lifetime.

    We know that Jared will continue to acquire knowledge and the ability to express himself through all his creative skills and conquer and achieve all that he wishes and so deserves.

    We are so fortunate to have the love and support of all our family and friends.

    With all our love,

    The Tilliss Family

  4. Tilliss Family and Friends says:

    Stacy and David Shared email responses from family and friedns who read the blog: This is what they had to say:
    I just read the Rabbi's wonderful blog. THANK YOU for sharing this with me. You must be so proud of your son. If you don't mind, I'd like to share this with Suzie at Another Way. She may have clients who are Jewish and I think this would really inspire them.
    Congratulations again. You are right: it was worth reading! I'm glad you gave me the chance too.
    we were so moved by this email and had tears in our eyes reading the rabbi's words. We can only imagine the pride and happiness your family and all the congregants felt in what had to be a day to never be forgotten by all. We so wish we could have been there to cry in happiness for Jared and your family. Mazel Tov. We cannot wait to hear about it in person from u and see the pics from the celebration too!
    You must be so proud. It brought tears to my eyes!!!!
    I remember when my kids were Bar/Bat Mitzvah'd
    SO AMAZING. My youngest son had a word processing problem and
    I can remember how amazed I was about his reading of the Haftorah…Yikes!!
    So I am Kvelling aong with you!
    "A truly spot-on blog from the Rabbi. Would have been suprising NOT to get teary-eyed, mostly to watch Jared show what he is capable of if given the chance and correct guidance, but also to hear the Rabbi's eloquent words, and of course the mention of my Dad, who would have been so very proud of Jared. Quite a day, one that I will always remember."
    Thanks for the good cry and please give Jared a HUGE hug from me and tell him officially "welcome to the tribe". Our tribe became just a bit stronger by Jared accomplishing his Bar Mitzvah. What a mensch!
    Rabbi Kipnes blog captures the spirit of the day. Deb and I were so happy to be there to share the day with your family and especially Jared. What a wonderful young man. Eventhough we were there for a short time it was great connecting with the rest of the Tilliss family. As I told David, it always startles me when I see "David Tilliss" Although I know he was not named after my father, I see the name and think about my father even just momentarily. All the best to you and your family.
    WOW, MAZEL TOV!!!!! I cried when I read the blog. It must have been the most incredible day for all of you. HE DID IT!!!!!!!!! I am so happy for you! I want to hear all about the day!! Love you all of you and we'll talk soon I hope.
    The rabbi's blog was almost as wonderful as the bar mitzvah. How very lucky you were to find him. Bob and I are going to go to some Friday night services at the temple…..seems like a place we could be comfortable. Right now we don't go anywhere…..
    Thanks so much for letting me be part of it.
    Hugs and mazel tov to Jared.
    What an amazing blog Rabbi Kipnes wrote about Jared. I can only imagine how proud you are of him. Mazel Tov.
    It was such a special and moving service and michael and cathryn and I will never forget it. we love you. xoxoxo
    I am so touched after reading what the rabbi said. I can only imagine how moving this ceremony must have been for everyone. I so wish I could have been there. What a special day and congratulations again to Jared
    Jared is a special guy and it was a terrific service and weekend. He warmed our hearts and we were proud to be a part of it.
    What a beautiful service.
    Like I told you yesterday, Jared has inspired me, as he has done so many times before. He showed courage, strength, and love. My heart overflowed with emotions that day.
    Thank you for allowing my family into yours.
    Yes, it was truly the most beautiful, moving and the most amazing performance by Jared, and the Rabbi was absolutely right, there were no dry eyes in the temple. We were so touched in every way.

  5. Friends and Family of The Tilliss Family says:

    That was truly beautiful, and brought tears here too.
    Congratulations to all of you!

    congratulations, I give credit to his wonderful parents!
    Well stated.
    I am not "religious", but that is quite a temple.

    Yes, it was truly the most beautiful, moving and the most amazing performance by Jared, and the Rabbi was absolutely right, there were no dry eyes in the temple. We were so touched in every way.
    Like I mentioned in my earlier email, the compassion, courage, determination and love you, David and Nicole have blessed Jared with, made him where he is today. All of you are truly an example of God's people.

    Thank you for sharing the Rabbi’s blog. What a beautiful service.

    Like I told you yesterday, Jared has inspired me, as he has done so many times before. He showed courage, strength, and love. My heart overflowed with emotions that day.

    Thank you for allowing my family into yours.

    We love you.

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