By Rabbi Mordechai Levin
I recently read the moving story of a 91-year-old Dutch Jew who celebrated his bar mitzvah ceremony last month at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
He was the child of an assimilated family living in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Judaism was only part of their family’s past, not the present — so much so that he was even ignorant of the bar mitzvah custom.
When the Nazis approached his city, the young boy escaped to Antwerp, Belgium. In 1940, he ran away from Belgium to England and joined the armed forces. He took part in the attack of Normandy and returned to Antwerp alongside with the city’s liberators. In the meantime, his parents were killed in the Auschwitz camp.
During the war he met the woman who would become his wife, another assimilated Jew, and they had three children. The family lived in Canada for many years, devoid of any connection to Jewish life. He described his life at that time, saying, “The only thing I knew was that I was Jewish. I didn’t remember anything else, and it didn’t really bother me.”
But fifteen years ago, after his wife’s death, he began searching for meaning in his life. He started attending religious services at a Reform synagogue, and he even visited Israel.
Six months ago, something transformed his life. He arrived at a World War II veterans’ conference in Bratislava, Slovakia. There he saw a Jew — a former Israeli ambassador –wearing a kipah (skullcap). The Dutch man approached him and introduced himself.
As they talked, the two realized that they had both left Antwerp on the same day — May 12, 1940. The ambassador asked him his name and suddenly the Dutch man’s eyes filled with tears. He said, “I never celebrated my bar mitzvah.” The ambassador replied,“”No problem; I’ll organize a party for you.”
And so a few months later, the man traveled to Israel and celebrated his bar mitzvah at the Western Wall. He described the experience as a tremendous event, and said he never believed he would return to Judaism.
“When you spend your entire childhood surviving a war, you don’t care about anything else. But now it’s time to settle this debt once and for all. I didn’t think I would be so excited, but this is one of the happiest days of my life. Had I been aware of the satisfaction a bar mitzvah could give a person, I would have done it a long time ago. But it’s better at 91 than never.”
As with many other similar stories, this shows that no matter how removed a Jew is from Judaism, there is an inner Jewish essence that can be brought to life in unexpected ways. How about us? How bright is our Jewish spark? What things can we do to ignite that spark?
This month we celebrate Hanukkah and we kindle the lights of the hanukkiyah, an eight-branched candelabrum, to which one candle is added each night of the holiday. By adding candles, the light grows in strength during the eight days of the festival. Hanukkah invites us to light the Jewish spark inside us that cannot be extinguished, and to help kindle those Jewish sparks in the people around us.