Sixty-seven years after his 13th birthday, Larry Feinstein decided that it was finally time to have a Bar Mitzvah. It was an e-mail from ALEH, Israel's largest network of residential facilities for children with severe physical and cognitive disabilities, that inspired 80-year old Feinstein to go through with the transformative Jewish ritual.
The e-mail he received described the many ways an individual can assist ALEH in its important work, among them the organization's Bar Mitzvah twinning program. The program pairs Bar Mitzvah boys from around the world with a child in one of ALEH's four residential facilities who is also becoming Bar Mitzvah – their "twin" – and arranges a joint celebration in Israel. Those who cannot commit to a trip overseas can simply sponsor their twin's celebration. In either case, the program affords ALEH's children an opportunity they would not have had otherwise.
Feinstein, a father of three from Flint, Michigan, took his first trip to Israel last November with a Jewish Federation mission. When Feinstein found out that his brother, Don, would be volunteering for the IDF through Sarel this winter, he decided to return to Israel so the two could explore the country together. With his bags already packed for a sibling adventure in the Holy Land, Feinstein decided that the timing was perfect for a Bar Mitzvah celebration.
"I decided I’m 80 years old, so maybe it's time to have a Bar Mitzvah," joked Feinstein following the Bar Mitzvah bash at ALEH's Jerusalem Facility. "Knowing that my brother would be by my side, and that we had the chance to help a child with special needs, I knew that this was the ideal setting for my long-awaited Bar Mitzvah."
Feinstein was paired with Rafael, a bubbly 13-year old who resides at ALEH Jerusalem. On Monday morning, January 7, the Bar Mitzvah twins, along with two other Bar Mitzvah-aged boys from ALEH Jerusalem, received special siddurim (prayer books), put on tefillin (phylacteries), and recited the morning prayers together. Feinstein's brother and his close friends, Janet and Jonathan Ifferlin, looked on.
"I had tears a couple of times," noted Feinstein. "Rafael, my twin, was just fantastic. I just can't say enough about the experience. It was the most fabulous thing I have ever been a part of."
Immediately following the ceremony, the Bar Mitzvah boys made their way to the main room where 30 other ALEH residents and 35 volunteers, along with staff, teachers and parents, were waiting for them. A band played as the crowd danced around the Bar Mitzvah twins. The lively singing and dancing died down for only moments at a time when parents and teachers would interject quick speeches and words of blessing.
"Larry had an incredible time. You could tell that it was a mind-blowing experience for him. And the ALEH kids had a blast," commented Dov Hirth, ALEH's Director of Marketing and Development and the coordinator of Bar/Bat Mitzvah Programming. "The party lasted much longer than anyone thought it would. Thanks to Larry, Rafael had a real Bar Mitzvah."
ALEH strives to provide its residents with the kinds of opportunities and experiences had by their "normal" counterparts, chief among them Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies and other religious ritual events. With that goal in mind, Larry and Rafael's Bar Mitzvah was a huge success.
"I just can't get over it. I will remember this day forever," said a very emotional Larry. "A lot of Bar Mitzvah kids have a skewed idea of the meaning of the day, all they think about is getting presents. In that regard, I'm glad I waited until now, for the perfect opportunity. This is the way a Bar Mitzvah should be celebrated. It was just so genuine."