Bar Mitzvah
Bar MitzvahiStock

My son is becoming a bar mitzvah. In a bitter irony, he is becoming a man in the midst of what might well be the worst inhumanity of the modern age. What should have been a happy turning point in his life will forever be marred by the horrors of war against which it has been set.

Like everyone in Israel, our family has been touched by the icy hand of this war. We have lost someone we care about to a terror attack. We worry constantly about our loved ones fighting, praying that they will call to let us know that they’re all right. The baby has become so traumatized by the explosions that any loud noise scares her. Hard as it has been, many people have lost much more. Even as we celebrate, I am keenly aware that there are guests whose own sons, not so much older than mine, are at this very moment risking their lives in the IDF so that we can celebrate in peace.

Against such a backdrop, it’s natural to wonder just what there even is to celebrate. But the Jewish way is to find the light in even the blackest darkness. And in the long, dark night of this war, this bar mitzvah in many ways signifies just how brightly the Nation of Israel is shining.

The fact of my son even having a bar mitzvah is a remarkable step forward. I never had a bar mitzvah myself. We were raised totally secular and I never saw the reason to bother. My father likewise did not have a bar mitzvah. This all means that the last person to have a bar mitzvah in my family before my son was his great-grandfather in 1930. After 94 years, the fire of the Torah is once again being ignited.

We are far from alone in this. The number of Jews who have returned to Torah in the past few decades is staggering. Look in the halls of the most prestigious yeshivas, in the most religious neighborhoods of Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, in the courts of Chassidic Rebbes, or at any number of Shabbat tables and you will find Jews deeply devoted to Torah and mitzvot whose upbringing was anything but traditional.

While secular Jewish movements are hemorrhaging members and their flagship institutions are struggling to survive, the Torah world is growing at an unprecedented rate. New shuls, schools, and other Torah centers are opened every year, with enough new members to justify the growth. A growing number of Kiruv organizations, the amazing work of Chabad shilachs, youth programs like NSCY, and the dedication of welcoming synagogues and Chinuch organizations mean that more Jews than ever are being brought to their people.

A recent survey by US Torah Organizations found that approximately over 100 Jews become Torah observant every year. In Israel, the number is even higher. Before the war, it was estimated the number of baalei teshuvah and their offspring had surpassed 300,000.

Since the war began, the transformation has become unmistakable. Countless Jews have understood the message and come closer to Torah. Some are taking on new mitzvot for themselves, often for the first time. Across the country, Friday night is illuminated with women who have begun to light Shabbat candles. More and more men can be seen each day proudly wearing tzitzit, including many of our soldiers. Others decide to commit fully to a Torah lifestyle, once again including many soldiers. Whatever the level of commitment, there is hardly a Jew in Israel who has not been brought closer to their heritage since the war began.

My son is coming into his bar mitzvah remarkably prepared. Since preschool, he has been privileged to learn Torah in a local Cheder, one of many in the neighborhood. He was prepared for his Torah reading by a local Kollel man, a scholar who devotes every hour of every day to learning the wisdom that has preserved us for generations. He will have the event in the beis midrash of the current Piaseczner Rebbe, Rabbi Kalman Menachem Shapira. The Rebbe took us in when we first arrived and made us family. No less than a gadol of the modern age took it upon himself to make sure that my son had what he needed. The level of Jewish life that went into making this event is something I would not even have imagined when I was his age, let alone aspired to.

The reality is that the Torah world is not only growing, it is thriving like never before. My son is not alone in his high level of education. Today over 2.5 million children learn in Israel, over a third of them at a Torah-based school. Haradi education alone now constitutes 25.5% of the Hebrew-language education system in Israel. The learning continues into adulthood. Besides Israeli learners, young men and women come from all over the world to learn, sometimes only for a year, sometimes for a year that turns into a lifetime.

Besides the full-time learning, the number of Torah classes grows every day. Signs appear in supermarket windows announcing the start of a new class. Most synagogues have programs running at all hours of the day. Having to work is never an issue. Even someone with a full-time job can finish their work at the end of the day and know that there are any number of night classes waiting for them. And looking into these countless classrooms, it is clear that Israelis are taking advantage of what they have. More people are learning Torah in Israel than at any other point in history since the destruction of the Second Temple.

My son can’t understand why I find this all so amazing. He will never know about growing up in America, where even a weekly Torah class was a luxury. He didn’t grow up like I did when there was only one choice for matzah in the grocery store come Passover. Today we can pick from hundreds and still he wonders why I stare at the supermarket. I did not even interact with an observant rabbi until I was in high school. Today, I have Rosh yeshivahs, modern-day poseks, godolim, and Rebbes whom I see every day on the street and great as old friends. Here is Israel, the next-door neighbor could very well be, and sometimes is, a Torah scholar of such caliber that their presence in America would be a major event. And I can knock on their door to borrow a cup of sugar.

The growth of Torah is such that, were one to explain it to a Jew several hundred years ago, it would be dismissed as too farfetched to be believable. In the Middle Ages, entire countries banned learning the Talmud. Today, daf yomi shiurs are standard in every shul. In times of persecution, even if someone wanted to learn, the church had already burned all the copies so that over and over again, Jews in these ages could not find a single book spared. Today, thanks to apps and smartphones, anyone can store the entire shas in their pockets. Digitization of texts also means that the common scholar can find any source they need to look at, including in books so rare that many of the great sages of old never had the chance to see, let alone learn from. With so many classes online as well, in any language, on any subject, for any level and any background, Torah is accessible to everyone in a way that would not even have been conceivable less than a century ago.

Finally, and perhaps most amazing of all, my son will celebrate his bar mitzvah here in the land of Israel. The land that, after they were exiled from it in 70 A.D., the Jewish people spent the next 1,878 years fighting to get back to. The land that Jews all over the world pray three times a day to return to. The land that even the greatest rabbis and tzadikim of the past ages, that even Moshe Rabbniu himself, did not merit to enter. This is the very land that my son returned to as a baby, the only country he has ever known.

He is not alone here. Today over seven million Jews make Israel their home. And that number grows each day. In the last year, 44,372 new olim arrived. They came from all over the world. 2,495 immigrants arrived from the United States and Canada, 1,178 from Ethiopia, 1,125 from Latin America, and 945 from France. Another 36,000, originated from countries of the former Soviet Union.

Rather than drive people away, it seems the war has apparently inspired people to move here. Whether due to fear of antisemitism in their home countries or to a deeper need to be with their people in this time of trouble, Aliyah has gone up significantly since October 7th. An astonishing 6,500 people have immigrated to Israel since the Hamas massacre.

The miracle of living in Eretz Israel, the impossible dream of countless generations, is now an everyday reality. I have no idea how it is that I, the kid who got kicked out of Hebrew classes, somehow merited to be part of this amazing return, but when I look at my children and see their lives, and then compare it to what they would have experienced growing up in America, I know we made the right decision.

I look at all we have today, and even in in the face of all the horrors of the past few months, and I can see so much light breaking through the blackness. When I look at my son and realize all that his bar mitzvah actually represents, I cannot help but be overwhelmingly grateful.

This then is perhaps the final lesson. That now that there is so much worth being thankful for, then when looking forward to the coming months ahead and the challenges sure to arise, we must remember that it means that there is also so much worth fighting for.

Ilan Goodmanis a museum collections professional and exhibition curator. He also serves as a rabbi and educator. He made Aliyah to Israel in 2011 and lives with his wife and children in Beit Shemesh.