February 27, 2020

Fire Forces Bar Mitzvah Change of Venue

Jace Kletter reads from the Torah as MJCS Cantor Marcelo Gindlin (far left) and (from left) Jeff, Josie and Jett Kletter look on. Courtesy of Jeff Kletter

When the Kletter family evacuated their Malibu Canyon home on Nov. 10 due to the Woolsey fire, they expected to return there shortly thereafter. 

The family of five comprises parents Josie and Jeff, their children, Jett, Jace and Jessa, plus their dog, Jasko — “the J crew.” Josie joked during a phone interview that they were accustomed to evacuations during fires followed by prompt returns home. So when they got the call at 7 a.m. Nov. 9 to leave, Josie put together a small grab-and-go box of important documents and photos and told the kids to grab whatever they could, leaving behind supplies needed for Jace’s bar mitzvah, scheduled for the next day at Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue (MJCS).

“Everything that was ready to go to the synagogue for his service and for his party — the centerpieces, the candy, everything you can imagine — was all staged and ready in our garage,” Josie said. Unfortunately, that’s exactly where everything stayed. 

Unable to return to their home, the Ketters rented an Airbnb in Marina del Rey, and Pacific Palisades synagogue Kehillat Israel (KI), which had already taken in MJCS’s Torah scrolls for safekeeping, encouraged the Kletters to hold Jace’s bar mitzvah in their shul. 

“They welcomed us with open arms and gave us their small sanctuary and even their social room for a reception,” Josie said, and on Nov. 9 the family notified the 120 invited guests that there had been a venue change and said they understood if people couldn’t make it. 

From left: Kehillat Israel Cantor Chayim Frenkel; Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue (MJCS) Cantor Marcelo Gindlin; MJCS Rabbi Michael Schwartz; and Kehillat Israel Rabbi Daniel Sher, pictured with MJCS’ evacuated Torah scrolls at Kehillat Israel. Courtesy of Kehillat Israel.

Jace was up for the improvised plan. His Torah portion, Vayetzei, follows Jacob’s experiences with Laban. “I was happy to do it,” Jace told the Journal, “because if I did it later, I believe I would have to learn a new portion and I’m not good at learning stuff quickly.” 

Ironically, Josie had opted not to hold Jace’s bar mitzvah on his 13th birthday, Nov. 22, because she was concerned no one would show up over Thanksgiving weekend. But on Nov. 10, around 25 people attended Jace’s service at KI, followed by a small reception in the social hall.

“He really enjoyed it. It was an intimate group. He was very polished and confident,” Josie said. “I think with his Torah portion being what it was, it fit with the circumstance.” She added, “Everyone was feeling stressed and lost. It gave everyone a few minutes to focus on something positive.”

“When my students read Torah, I say the world can fall apart and you finish reading. The world was literally falling apart but Jace continued reading. We choose life. We have to continue.” — Cantor Marcelo Gindlin

That included MCJS Cantor Marcelo Gindlin, who lost his home in a man-made fire last year, and MJCS Rabbi Michael Schwartz, whose rented home was destroyed in the Woolsey fire. The two officiated Jace’s rite of passage.

“When [my students] read Torah, I say the world can fall apart and you finish reading,” Gindlin said.  “The world was literally falling apart but [Jace] continued reading. We choose life. We have to continue.”

Though it was not the crowd the family had expected for Jace’s big day, nor the fancy party with all of Jace’s friends and the cool DJ, nonetheless, Josie said, “it was such a meaningful experience. It sure is one Jace will not forget.”

“I’m so exceptionally proud of him,” his father, Jeff, added. “He is such a bright young man. He has grown up into being a good citizen of the world. A mensch. That’s what my dad used to say: ‘You have to be mensch. You have to do what you’re going to do and there’s no point in complaining.’ ”