A bar mitzvah amid tears — and kvelling
This was a day that Loren Evans’ family thought they would never see.
In a heartwarming ceremony featuring an unlikely front man, Loren — a high-functioning autistic 18-year-old — celebrated his bar mitzvah at a landmark Los Angeles synagogue.
The young computer whiz also suffers from selective mutism, an anxiety disorder which makes it nearly impossible for him to speak to anyone except family members, let alone headline an oration-heavy bar mitzvah.
With the help of a volunteer leader from Camp Chesed, a camp for young people with special needs, and a Chabad rabbi, Loren stood on the bimah and participated in the ceremony to his fullest ability.
“Loren was glowing brighter than I’ve seen him glow in a very long time,” his mother, Gilda, said. “It brought him great joy, meaning and fulfillment. I think he smiled more than I’ve ever seen him smile.”
The bar mitzvah took place on Dec. 25, Christmas Day as well as the first day of Chanukah, at the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights, one of the city’s most historic houses of worship. About two dozen or so friends and relatives attended.
Loren, who lives with his family in Tarzana, currently attends Pierce College and has an affinity for electronics and computers, which his mother says he hopes to parlay into a future in the gaming world.
However, Loren’s family, longtime members of Stephen Wise Temple, previously had doubted he would be able to follow in the footsteps of his older brother and sister in the bar and bat mitzvah tradition.
“I had always assumed Loren’s personal challenges would prohibit it,” his mother said. “We weren’t sure it was feasible.”
Jacques Hay, a man the Evans family knew well, had other plans, offering to make all the bar mitzvah arrangements.
Hay, a short, bubbly man with gray stubble, owns a store in Northridge that sells awards, plaques and trophies. For the past 21 years, he has run Camp Chesed, a Reseda-based, two-week-long summer camp for Jewish children with special needs. The camp is free for all campers, and its operations rely on private donations Hay works to obtain.
Loren attended Camp Chesed for the past five summers. Several Camp Chesed alumni and their families were present for his bar mitzvah.
A few weeks before the big day, Hay called Gilda to invite the family to a Chanukah party for Camp Chesed campers, counselors, alumni and families. During that same call, he proposed giving Loren a bar mitzvah.
“When he said to me it’s something Loren deserves, the tears began to flow. I asked Loren and he didn’t hesitate,” Gilda Evans recalled.
Hay met with Loren once before the bar mitzvah for a 1 1/2-hour tutoring session about the Chanukah haftarah portion that would be read on his special day. They went over the prayers and what Loren’s role would be.
At the ceremony, Loren stood smiling next to Hay’s friend Rabbi Yitzchak Sapochkinsky of Chabad of Westlake Village — who made the more than 50-mile trip to officiate. Loren carried the Torah in the procession around the chapel. He then followed and pointed at the text of his haftarah portion while the rabbi sang. Sapochkinsky gave voice to the voiceless and the ceremony reduced many to tears.
Gilda; Loren’s older brother, Louis, and grandparents Ernest and Ida Braunstein were in attendance. His older sister, Leigh, watched via Facetime from Boston, where she works for AmeriCorps.
Loren’s 92-year-old grandfather joined the man of the hour on the bimah. Behind them, an ornate mural depicted lit chanukiyahs and commandment tablets, a permanent fixture in the sanctuary, which recalls the heritage of the 101-year-old synagogue. A Holocaust survivor who has macular degeneration, rendering him blind, Ernest Braunstein recited an aliyah from memory. His 88-year-old wife watched alongside Gilda in the women’s seating section.
Louis beamed with pride as he aimed his cellphone at the altar so his sister Leigh could watch from the East Coast.
“I’m just happy he got to have a bar mitzvah like my little sister and I did,” Louis said. “Now it’s all three of us. It’s so great for my grandfather. All the culture, tradition and heritage is really important to him. He, along with the rest of the family, really loved seeing him up there.”
Gilda was quick to credit Hay, saying, “It was all due to the generosity of [Jacques], who is one of the most amazing people I’ve met in my life.”
During the summer, Hay’s Camp Chesed hosts about 40 campers of all ages. For every camper, there are two to three counselors, usually volunteer high school and college students. Hay’s campers span the gamut of special needs, although he estimates more than 80 percent are on the autism spectrum.
In recent years, Camp Chesed has treated campers to trips to Disneyland and Universal Studios, as well as flights over the greater Los Angeles area in two-seater airplanes.
At the ceremony, Hay was modest and shrugged off the amount of time and energy he pours into performing good deeds.
“This is what Camp Chesed does,” he said. “It’s a very special camp.”
Hay told the Journal he has had seven campers bar mitzvah’d under his watch. Four years ago, he helped coordinate a Breed Street Shul bar mitzvah of another Camp Chesed alumnus, a young man with a brain tumor.
“Eighty thousand Jews used to live within a five-mile radius of this place,” he said of the synagogue. “It’s the oldest and maybe most respected synagogue in Los Angeles. Coming back here is like going back to the future.”
Once the hub of the city’s Los Angeles Jewish community until many Jews migrated to West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley after World War II, the Breed Street Shul later fell into disrepair and was vandalized. An ambitious restoration project that includes seismic retrofitting and repainting is under way. The large, iconic Byzantine-style sanctuary remains closed for that work. The smaller chapel to the rear, where Loren’s bar mitzvah was held, is now used mainly as a community center serving the largely Latino population of Boyle Heights.
Founding and board president of the Breed Street Shul Project Stephen Sass, who was present for the bar mitzvah, has overseen the restoration for the past 16 years. Sass said the shul hosts a Jewish event such as Loren’s bar mitzvah four or five times a year.
Gilda, who knew little of the shul’s history before Hay filled her in, deemed it a perfect setting for the occasion.
“How appropriate is that? It’s amazing to have a young man overcome seemingly impossible odds and accomplish this wonderful mitzvah in a place that also overcame impossible odds to be restored as the place of worship it is today,” she said.
Gilda went on to say that she hopes more people with special needs draw motivation from what Loren was able to do.
“I hope this will serve as an inspiration to other young people who have challenges, obstacles they perceive too difficult to overcome, and who might be able to accomplish the same thing. I hope this will inspire them to take another look at it, adopt another viewpoint and perhaps find a way to have the same wonderful experience.”
After the bar mitzvah and a bagel brunch, 450 guests attended a Chanukah party for Camp Chesed alumni and families on an Encino estate, home to a prominent camp donor. Loren was bestowed with the honor of lighting the menorah welcoming the second night of Chanukah.