Loren Evans (left) grasps the Torah during his bar mitzvah at Breed Street Shul. Photos by Lynn Levitt.

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.”

camp-jaquesJacques 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.

From left: Family members Louis Evans, Ernest Braunstein, Gilda Evans, Loren Evans and Ida Braunstein gather on the bimah at the Boyle Heights synagogue.

From left: Family members Louis Evans, Ernest Braunstein, Gilda Evans, Loren Evans and Ida Braunstein gather on the bimah at the Boyle Heights synagogue.

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.

Wild Lessons

In Parshat Shemini, we learn which animals are kosher. Why did God create both kosher and non-kosher animals? The Talmud sages say that there is something we can learn from every animal.

We can learn to be industrious and honest from an ant. Ants are hardworking and they don’t steal from each other.
King David tried to fathom the meaning behind each animal, but he couldn’t figure out the spider. So, God showed King David how the spider could save a life.

When running for his life from King Saul, David hid in a cave. King Saul and his soldiers were searching everywhere. God sent a spider to spin a web over the opening of the cave in which David was hiding. When the soldiers came to his cave and saw it was covered with a spider’s web, they moved straight past, not imagining that the web was freshly made.

Did You Know?

The word for lovingkindness in Hebrew is chesed. The Hebrew word for stork that we find in the Bible is chasida. The rabbis say that the stork was given this name because this bird is very kind and generous with its food and shares with other birds.

Russia’s Elderly

In Samara, a city of 1.2 million in the Volgaregion of Russia, 87-year-old Anna sits in a 100-square-foot spacethat is her reality. One of perhaps 8,000 elderly Jews in town, shespends her lonely days confined to her room, blind and her legs tooweak to support her. A sagging bed takes up most of her room, whichis one of five apartments that constitute the communal apartment inwhich she exists. The other residents share one toilet and a dirtykitchen.

Anna, the daughter of the last rabbi of Samara,lost her only son during the Second World War and, more recently, herhusband to an automobile accident. She moved into a communal flatbecause she could not afford better.

Anna relies on Ana Spalin, who is the director ofthe local Chesed, the Jewish welfare agency. The efforts of the JointDistribution Committee ensure that Ana and a core of elderlyvolunteers visit Anna and hundreds of her counterparts twice weekly.That means entering the squalor of Anna’s sad reality — walkingacross a dingy courtyard and edging over a piece of wood that spansan open sewer as they approach her room. This is not atypical.

In visits to dozens of apartments, I encountereddozens of Annas, each one an individual and a Jew.

How does one describe a situation that is almostan epidemic of poverty? What can we say about a society that, fordecades, promised its suffering citizens a modicum of comfort intheir later years, only to see that minimal comfort evaporate associety goes through another revolution? This is what has happened inRussia and the other vestiges of the Soviet Union. The demise ofcommunism has occasioned unprecedented Jewish immigration. It hasresulted in an explosion of capitalism and opportunity for a growingmiddle class. And, regrettably, it has created an underclass ofperhaps the most vulnerable members of society, the elderly,estimated to number 500,000.

How does an elderly man or woman, living on afixed income, survive when hyper-inflation makes that incomeworthless? This is the question we must ponder when considering theJews of the former Soviet Union.

Living in shabby, sometimes miniscule apartmentsthroughout Russia are Jewish men and women who will most surelyperish if we don’t help them to live and, more importantly, to live with dignity.

My recent visit to Russia to consult with theAmerican Joint Distribution Committee was, on many levels, excitingand encouraging. But when contemplating the hell of old age there, itwas sobering and depressing. A few facts will illustrate:

* Thirty-eight of every 100 Russian Jews are olderthan 60 years of age.

* The Russian Jewish population is proportionatelyaging more rapidly than any other in the world.

* The monthly pension on which a Jewish senioradult struggles can be as low as $15 a month.

* Even a Russian Jew who is a decorated warveteran cannot count on more than $65 a month.

* If a senior adult breaks a hip in Russia today,chances for survival are almost nil.

* There is practically no public health care forthe elderly in Russia today. What exists is so substandard that touse it is almost tantamount to a death warrant.

* Most senior adults exist on a kilo of breadconsumed every few days.

* Thousands of Jewish aged live in what can onlybe described as a slum without adequate toilet or kitchenfacilities.

* Those who can live without adequate food aresurviving in abject isolation in a country where there are sevenmonths of dangerous winter.

It is the food packages, the prosthetic devicesand the connection to the outside world that 75 local Jewish welfareorganizations are offering to the elderly. They are part of what iscalled the “Chassidim,” not Chassidim in the religious sense but inthe sense of communal instruments of compassion. Today, they are thelifeline to Anna in Samara and to the 70,000 other souls reached bythem. We can be extremely proud that our support of the JointDistribution Committee, the “Joint,” through the United Jewish Fundis making much of this possible. At the same time, we should considerwhat it will mean if we can’t reach the next 70,000 in need, waitingfor that bag of rice, chocolate bar or friendly voice.

Leaving the dilapidated building where an87-year-old former pediatrician is living alone, my companion, who iscoordinating Jewish home-care service to the 5,000 elderly in thattown, looks particularly shaken. With an intensity in his eyes, hesays to me, “That man saved thousands of children during his career;shouldn’t he live with some dignity?”

John R. Fishel is the executive vice presidentof the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles.