Someone Else's Simcha Tom Kaminka's Bar Mitzvah - Happy in the Middle

At the tail end of a long and illustrious Zionist line, a young boy comes of age in front of a community seeking to maintain tradition, with a difference.

Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim
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Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim

Location: Hod Ve-Hadar Conservative Synagogue

Time: 9 A.M.

In the neighborhood: Red-roofed residential buildings and verdant parks, set along one of the quieter streets of the city of Kfar Sava, situated about 20 minutes northeast of Tel Aviv. Under a cloudy sky, a slight autumn breeze sweeps through trees laden with raindrops from the season's first night of serious precipitation. Birds chirp above.

Venue: A wide, low structure, constructed in 1996 as the first permanent home of the city's Conservative, or "Masorti" (Traditional), community, founded in 1978. Indoors, wooden chairs, with red upholstery, evenly fill out a spacious main hall, providing joint seating for men and women. At one end, a golden ark, adorned with blue decorations, is set into a towering pale-blue wall with wide windows at both ends. At the other, an elaborate stained-glass window, shimmering in a sudden burst of sunlight, depicts the burning bush under a golden menorah.

Simcha: Tom Kaminka's bar mitzvah

Number of guests: ~250

Home: Tom, 13, is the second child of Gal, 41, a computer and robotics professor, and Oshra, 41, a psychologist. He was raised in Kfar Sava along with big brother Dor, 16, and little brother Shai, 10. All three of the Kaminka boys were born in the United States (Los Angeles and Pittsburgh), where Gal was completing his PhD (USC) and post-doc (Carnegie Mellon), and Oshra was studying for a M.A. in psychology (Pepperdine). The choice to return to Israel was a natural one. Gal: "I'm fourth generation in Israel. Zionism was deeply ingrained into our family." Oshra: "It had to do with family, the culture, where we grew up and ideology as well. But it was a mix of all those factors."

Family history: Oshra was raised in a secular, yet traditional home by David and Shoshana, who immigrated to Jerusalem from Kurdistan and Iraq respectively. Gal was born to Nachum and Shlomit Kaminka, and is the great grandson of Rabbi Aharon Kaminka, a member of the First Zionist Congress and an associate of Theodore Herzl ("until the Uganda Plan, that is. They had a big fight after that"). In fact, the Torah scroll used in Tom's ceremony is the same one that was given to Rabbi Aharon upon being ordained a rabbi and that he, years later, loaned to Israel's first Reform congregation to enable their worship (Nachum: "He didn't necessarily agree with them, but he felt they had a right to practice in their own way").

Tom Kaminka's bar mitzvah

Going Conservative: An outsider to the Conservative way of worship, and raised in a secular home with a bent toward a more Orthodox brand of tradition, Oshra said she was hooked by the congregation's sense of belonging and family, as well as their respect for women: "You sit with the entire family, pray, bless, speak, take part in activities. There isn't a separation between men's and women's roles, which shows respect both for women and for the family." Gal: "I enjoy belonging to a tradition, and the fact that I say, give or take, the same prayers my great grandfather said as an Orthodox rabbi. We don't stray from that tradition. But, on the other side, there's a feeling of openness and closeness with one another."

Rites: Congregation members shuffle and chatter their way into the main hall, quickly filling out the rows of red chairs. After a few minutes, silence falls as the shaliach tzibbur begins leading the room through the morning service. Eventually, the Kaminka Torah scroll is brought from behind the ark's blue-and-white curtain (parokhet), and the gabbai calls out men and women out one by one, or sometimes two by two, to read from the week's portion, "Chayei Sarah" ("The Life of Sarah"), which depicts Abraham's purchasing of Ma'arat HaMachpela (The Tomb of the Patriarchs) as a burial site for his wife.

At the third reading, or aliyah, a young couple (Edo and Ayala) celebrate their upcoming nuptial by being escorted to the stage by friends and family holding up an embroidered chuppah and by the singing voices of the entire congregation. Following Ayala's reading, community members lightly pelt the smiling soon-to-be newlyweds with candy and burst into an impromptu hora dance around them. After a few verbal nudges from gabbai Ed, the jubilant crowd takes a seat, allowing the readings to continue.

Finally, in the seventh aliyah of the portion, the man of the hour, so to speak, rises to the occasion, reading the short section ending the parashah. The crowd then gets its due encore, with a lengthy and expertly executed haftarah, this time dealing with the elderly King David handing down the rule to his son Solomon. While the Land of Israel worries about civil war over kingly succession, covert candy-launchers gather on the synagogue's plain tile floor, led by general Shai – sparkling eyes and all. As soon as the last line is read, the troops unleash their attack, with candy pieces crashing against Tom's tallit and youngsters throwing themselves on discarded sweets. Dancing pandemonium breaks out.

When things calm down, Tom takes the stage again, this time to deliver his bar mitzvah sermon. Focusing on the week's parasha, he delivers what he sees as the lesson of the tale of the Tomb of the Tomb of the Patriarchs – a place, as he says, over which "wars are fought even today." The ensuing centuries-long battle for success between the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael, Tom says, isn't just an overarching biblical theme – it's a brother thing ("I'm talking to all you middle brothers out there. You know what I mean"). Driving the lesson home, the young Kaminka says he feels the portion teaches that, "with all due respect to the conflict, the bombings, and the wars, all peoples are really brothers."

Closing the festivities or, more precisely, the Torah part, silvery-haired Rabbi Lee Diamond, one of the congregation's seven presiding rabbis, takes to the stage. After commenting on the packed house ("standing room only"), and bringing up memories of Gal's own bar mitzvah in the community, Rabbi Diamond congratulates the newly made man, urging him to collect not only years but years of worth and good deeds, just as Abraham did. He finishes by bestowing birkat hakohanim on Tom, and reciting the shehecheyanu with the entire Kaminka tribe. Next up: Chow!

The crowd files straight to the awaiting buffets as smiling waitresses offer trays packed with tiny plastic wine cups. A babble of English and Hebrew ensues. In one corner, a middle-aged woman wearing a kippa approaches U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, a regular at the community: "I voted Obama for you!" she says, smiling and shaking both his hands. "I get that a lot," he replies, smiling back.

Music: Religious songs, "Siman Tov u Mazal Tov."

Food: Salads, smoked salmon, cheeses, breads, cakes and candy and snacks for the kids (and some sweet-toothed adults).

Drink: Kiddush wine, assorted sodas and juices.

Word in the ear: Gal: "An Orthodox person coming to my synagogue raises an eyebrow when he sees a woman sitting next to her husband. A secular person, however, will raise two: one because he buys into the orthodox way, and one because he wants nothing to do with it, and so he throws it completely out of his life. The clash between orthodoxy and secularism in Israel has led both sides to push each other out of their lives. In the vacuum formed, communities such as ours offer something that both bridges [the gap] and offers acceptance."

In my spiritual doggy bag: That to find a way to fit tradition into your life doesn't mean taking sides in a fight.

Random quote: A boy of about 10, wearing a buttoned-down shirt and a kippa over a head of blonde hair, taunts his older, much taller brother: "What if I hit you in the arm, hard? To which his elder says: "Well, in that case I'm going to have to kill you."

Want to take part in Someone Else's Simcha? Want to invite Haaretz to your family celebration? Send word to:

The Bar Mitzvah boy Tom Kaminka.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen



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