I have been a regular Sarel participant since 2008 and have always found the experience enjoyable and rewarding. On my most recent tour, however, something unparalleled took place- an experience that will remain with me for the rest of my life. By way of background: My late parents were Hungarian holocaust survivors, the horrors of which included the internment of my father in Auschwitz. Because of this, as often happens in such families, my father downplayed my Jewishness in order to protect me from ever having to endure what he had. I understood and appreciated why my father did as he did, but as I grew older, I increasingly embraced and expressed my Jewishness. The fact remained, though, I never did have a bar mitzvah.
One afternoon after our workday, two of my fellow Sarelniks and I were chatting casually in our dorm and my own history came up. They asked whether I had ever had a bar mitzvah, and I said no. They said they knew of a situation where a bar mitzvah was held on a base for a Jewish man who had never had one.
I will never forget my response. Without a second‘s hesitation, I declared “I want that!“. Clearly, something inside me that had remained dormant for decades in that instant came to the fore. I asked my buddies if they could try and arrange this. The matter got boosted up the chain through our madrichim to the base commander, and at 6:45 a.m. the following Monday, at age 74, I was having my bar mitzvah! This on an IDF base in the middle of the Negev.
The sincere joy expressed by the Israeli soldiers and civilians who attended was palpable. And there was no questioning as to why an old guy like me was doing this, how come I was not conversant with all the rituals, and so on. One of the soldiers took it on himself to mentor me. (He could not speak English and my Hebrew is equivalent to a 3-year-old’s, but fortunately, we could communicate in French.) I did know the blessings for the Torah reading, and they gladly filled in for me regarding the other requirements.
One of the attendees even came armed with a pocketful of traditional hard candies to fling at me as I carried the Torah through the synagogue, and a table was set out back with celebratory snacks for us to enjoy after services.
Apparently, word had got out about this event, such that soldiers who had not been there that morning and whom I had never met, came up to me to wish me mazal tov. I was so elated, and still am, regarding the entire experience.
I want to thank my roomies for planting the seed, the madrichim for carrying the idea further, and the soldiers and commanders involved in organizing the event. And above all, I thank G-d for blessing me in this way.