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The saddest bar mitzvah in history

What happened recently at the Western Wall is an outrage. Orthodox leaders must speak out. Loudly.

I have been a rabbi for more than four decades. I have seen many young people become b’nai mitzvah. I have been to celebrations with all sorts of tasteless themes.

But, there is one theme that I have not experienced, and would have hoped not to experience.

“Torn prayer books.”

For that is precisely what happened two weeks ago, at the Western Wall. Young American Jews were celebrating becoming b’nai mitzvah at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall, when ultra-Orthodox extremists interrupted the ceremony. They called the worshipers “Nazis,” “Christians,” and “animals,” blew whistles — and tore up prayer books.

Several days ago, Prime Minister Yair Lapid contacted one of the b’nai mitzvah. Seth Mann of Las Vegas. Lapid told him that the protests “did not represent the State of Israel, the people of Israel, or the government of Israel.”

Many of the hoodlums — for that is what they are — were young people. One of them actually tore a page from a prayer book and wiped his nose with it.

If I were the parents or the rabbis of the young hoodlums who disrupted the ceremonies, I know what I would be tearing.

Not prayer books.

Rather, I would be tearing my clothing in mourning.

I would be bemoaning that I had produced children capable of doing such a thing. The term for this is hillul ha-shem, the profanation of God’s name, and it is one of the gravest sins that a Jew can commit.

Seth’s father, Joel Mann, wrote these words in Times of Israel. He described his own immense pride in the state of Israel; how central it has been to his Jewish identity; how shocked he was to discover that after all his efforts to support Israel, his son’s ceremony was brutally interrupted, with the police needing to intervene.

The teens continued to stand on top of tables, blow their whistles, and abuse the people attending the B’nei Mitzvahs. I became embarrassed that my family members who traveled over 7500 miles to be in Israel for the first time, saw that Israel does not want them there. I was embarrassed that after all my efforts to support Israel, I was considered less than worthy to the government of Israel.

In that dark moment, it was the Bar Mitzvah who showed me the way out of the darkness. My son, despite the screaming, the cajoling, and the whistling, DID NOT BREAK. He persevered and continued to take his place. He accepted his responsibilities as a Jew, even when the “Jews” around him were telling him otherwise. He finished his service and walked with his head held high through the crowd of haters and hooligans. I was proud of him! I was not proud of the State of Israel. I was not proud of the “home” for Jews around the world. 

Joel Mann served as the youngest president of his Conservative synagogue in Las Vegas. He has served on the regional board of the ADL in Nevada.

Had Mr. Mann been an even slightly less committed Jew, this brutal incident would have succeeded in totally turning him and his family off to Israel. It is a testimony to his faith and strength that it did not do so.

Let us understand: The clock is ticking on support for Israel among younger Jews. There are many reasons: the occupation, now well into its first half century; the settlements; human rights issues; how Israel uses its power.

But, then, there is the behavior of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel. American Jews might enjoy the characters in Shtisel — on the screen, at a safe distance. But if those characters come bearing rocks and hurling epithets, expect those American Jews to walk away from Israel.

I write these words in sadness, even despair. The weeks that lead us to Tisha B’Av are weeks of solemn reflection. Rather than engage in mourning for the ancient Temple, modern Jews might better spend their time in studying the words of the ancient sages that list the reasons for the destruction. Each reason has its contemporary analogy, but one of them sticks out like a sore thumb — baseless hatred.

It is all too easy for me, as a Reform rabbi, to say this. 

It is time for Orthodox rabbis — especially hareidi rabbis — to join me. It is time for them to say to the young people under their tutelage and under their communal control: “No. Stop. This is not the way. What you are doing is a grave sin. We will not tolerate it.”

Let it not be too much to hope — that as we approach Tisha B’Av, we will hear the esteemed voices of those men of Torah.

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I base my faith on the fact that it we are one people, with one heart.

The heart of a Jewish family in Las Vegas is broken. Their hearts will presumably heal.

But if these fractures continue, the heart of the Jewish people will not heal, and we will lose a generation of Jews.