A Bar Mitzvah with 1.2 million guests

I rarely pay attention to walls when I’m in a synagogue. I’m usually more focused on the people, the prayers and the rabbi’s sermon.
May 25, 2016

I rarely pay attention to walls when I’m in a synagogue. I’m usually more focused on the people, the prayers and the rabbi’s sermon.

On a recent Shabbat, though, I couldn’t stop looking at the walls. I was at a bar mitzvah service for my friend Steve Kessler’s son, Benny, with about 80 other guests. The service, led by Rabbi Lori Shapiro of the Open Temple in Venice Beach, featured some beautiful rituals I had never seen before, because I usually pray in more traditional synagogues.

And yet, as meaningful and poetic as the service was, what really blew me away was what I saw on the walls: 1.2 million little holes, each one representing a Jewish child who perished in the Holocaust.

The service was held at the open-air Goldrich Family Foundation Children’s Memorial, which is part of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) in Pan Pacific Park.

The holes are the sort of inspired design element that bridges architecture with storytelling. Instead of trying to imagine the loss of 1.2 million souls, you actually get to see 1.2 million holes.

Those tiny, little holes, of varying sizes, riveted me, because Benny Kessler had chosen to honor one of them.

He was sharing his bar mitzvah with a Dutch boy named Hijmie Bachrach, who was 7 when he was murdered at Auschwitz along with his parents and two sisters. A faded black-and-white photo of Hijmie (pronounced “Hymie”) lighting a menorah was on the cover of the program, right beneath a color photo of Benny doing the same.

Benny spoke movingly about Hijmie during the service. He had invited Hijmie’s first cousin, Avraham Perlmutter, who’s now 89 and living in Los Angeles, and wished him, “Mazel tov on the occasion of your cousin’s bar mitzvah.”

Perlmutter had always referred to his cousin as Hijman (“Hyman”). But when he contacted surviving family members in The Netherlands to let them know about the event, the family asked if Benny could use the more endearing Hijmie, which is how they remember him. They also sent photos of the boy, which found their way into Benny’s program.

As the service unfolded, the little hole that represented Hijmie became a little story. Here was a cute, rambunctious Jewish kid from Den Haag (The Hague) whose life was brutally terminated in 1943 before he had a chance to have his own bar mitzvah. And now, 73 years later, a Jewish kid in California was bringing that child and that story to life.

Hijmie Bachrach during a kindergarten Chanukah celebration in 1942 in The Hague, Netherlands.  He was killed in Auschwitz the following year.

Just as he lit a menorah in his own photo, Benny was now lighting one of the 1.2 million souls represented on the wall.

Benny’s special morning was the first such event to be held at the Children’s Memorial, which is a story in itself. My friend Steve knew about the idea of twinning b’nai mitzvah kids with children of the Holocaust, as he had seen two of my kids do it. When he and his son attended a school trip to the museum earlier this year, during which they visited the Children’s Memorial, they fell in love with the idea and the venue.

So they asked Samara Hutman, executive director of LAMOTH, if it would be possible to hold the service inside the memorial, and she said, “Of course!” Hutman used to run Remember Us, the organization that arranges the twinnings, before she merged it with the museum when she was named executive director there a few years ago. The program still holds a special place in her heart.

Benny’s bar mitzvah teacher, Shapiro, loved the idea of the unusual venue, and she brought along her cantor/musician and created a soulful and uplifting service.

I couldn’t help suggesting to Hutman during the lunch that maybe she and the rabbi should start a b’nai mitzvah program at the memorial for unaffiliated families looking for something different. They can call it “A B’nai Mitzvah for 1.2 Million Kids.” 

What better way for Jewish kids to connect to their ancestors and to Jewish peoplehood than to share their most special day with a Jewish kid who could never have one?

They could hold a service every week for the next 500 years and still have plenty of Jewish souls left on the wall.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

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