As a young man, Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz chose to spend a few summers helping the local shluchim at Chabad-Lubavitch of Alaska. He would routinely stand outside the Alaska Visitors Center in downtown Anchorage with a pair of t’filin and packets of information about Jewish programs, greeting tourists disembarking from the scenic cruises along the Alaskan coastline. If they were Jewish, he would let them know where they could find a minyan or a good kosher meal.
One day, an elderly couple was walking out of the Visitors Center. Avraham approached them with a friendly smile, and said, “Hello.” The man looked at him sharply, and in a loud, stern voice told him to get out of his way. Shaken, Avraham said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you. I’m just here to greet Jewish people who have come to visit Alaska.”
“Then go find someone else to bother,” the man shot back. “I want nothing to do with you or any religious Jew!”
“Excuse me, sir,” Avraham said as respectfully as he could, “I don’t mean to be rude, but obviously you must have been very hurt by someone who was an Orthodox Jew. I am a rabbinical student, and I plan to be a rabbi one day. Please, won’t you share with me what happened, so I won’t make the same mistake?”
The man turned to him with a look of surprise and said, “That’s a good answer. All right, I will tell you.”
He asked Avraham to sit down with them on a nearby bench. For the next hour, he told him his story: “I was born in London in 1929. My father was a soldier in the British Army. Before going to the front, he begged my mother to take good care of me, and to make sure I had a bar mitzvah. During the Battle of Britain, the Germans bombed London every night. My mother and I fled to Wales in the West Country. Life was extremely difficult for us. We lived from hand to mouth. Nonetheless, my mother wanted to fulfill her husband’s request. She brought me to the synagogue in Cardiff for a bar mitzvah lesson. I sat through my first class listening carefully, trying to take my mind off the war and our troubles.
“When my mother came to get me, the rabbi told her the classes cost one pound sterling. My mother was penniless. She begged him to forgive the cost. He responded, ‘Sorry. No pound, no bar mitzvah!’ My mother was humiliated. She grabbed me and ran out, vowing she would never come again. That was 52 years ago, and since then, I, too, have never set foot in an Orthodox synagogue! My father was killed in action. He never returned from the front, and never had his last wish fulfilled.”
Lionel wept as he told the story, and Avraham cried with him. He could not find the words to defend what had been done. Perhaps the rabbi was worried about feeding his own children. Or perhaps he was using the funds to help other displaced families, but that did not change anything. Avraham looked at Lionel and said, “I am so sorry. I wish I could take away the pain that you and your mother felt. However, I want to make you a promise. When I will be a rabbi, if people need my help, for bar mitzvah lessons, or for anything else, and they cannot afford it, I will always remember your story, and will not charge them, in your merit.” Lionel nodded, eyes glistening, and with great warmth, he said, “Thank you. I appreciate that.”
“But you know,” Avraham added quickly, “there is something I can do. I can give you a bar mitzvah right now!”
Suddenly, Lionel’s eyes filled with hope. “Son, I’ve waited 52 years for someone to say those words!”
They went back to his hotel, and Avraham was privileged to help Lionel put on t’filin for the first time in his life. They said Sh’ma together, danced, and drank a l’chayim. Lionel was at last able to celebrate his bar mitzvah and fulfill his father’s last wish.
A year later, Avraham was visiting his grandparents in Los Angeles and asked his grandfather to drive him over to Lionel’s home for a visit. And now, Poppa told him that after hearing Lionel’s story of his belated bar mitzvah, he, too, was ready to have one. Poppa was reminded of his own childhood. His father died in a Typhus epidemic in 1918. He was raised by his hard-working mother, but never had a father to take him to shul to have a bar mitzvah. He never became a religious Jew.
Avraham was thrilled, and the next morning, he helped his 88-year-old grandfather put on a talis and t’filin for the first time in his life. They made the blessings together and said the Sh’ma, and then sang together Siman Tov U’Mazal Tov. Grandma and Poppa were both moved to tears of joy.
By Rabbi Dovid Hoffman