Commentary | My bar mitzvah - 50 years later

June 15, 2013 

Summer of 1963 at Temple Israel in Detroit. A Friday night Shabbat service. I prepared hard for what was to come. I threw myself into my bar mitzvah, and the results were clear that night.

Being talented at languages, I soaked up Hebrew like a sponge. My Torah portion from the Book of Numbers, one of the most confusing passages about the ashes of the red heifer, still confuses me, but I was very proud of the job I did, and I truly enjoyed my bar mitzvah.

I still remember mom dressed in her gorgeous, flowing, powder blue chiffon dress as if it were yesterday. Is it possible that it was actually 50 years ago?

Six months before my bar mitzvah, mom and dad gave me a choice between an expensive, blow-out party like most of the other kids were having and a summer trip to Israel.

That wasn't a family trip staying in every five-star hotel in every big city in Israel. This was the Bar and Bat Mitzvah Pilgrimage coordinated by the Labor Zionist Organization of North America.

Partly because of my love of geography and partly because of my rabbi, Leon Fram, one of the very first Zionist Reform rabbis, whose great love of Israel had a profound influence on me, I chose the trip without hesitation.

I'll go to Israel for six weeks. That sure beats a party that's over in a few hours, I thought, And you can't even keep the flowers. They just throw them out.

Although a bit homesick at times, I fell in love with Israel. I came to understand and appreciate the spirit of the people and their love and attachment to the land. The rest, as they say, is history.

One day we planted trees on the border with Jordan which was just outside the city of Jerusalem at that time. The Jewish National Fund gave each of us a sapling to plant.

Mrs. Rachel Ben Zvi, the widow of Yitzhak Ben Zvi, the second president of Israel, came to visit us that day. She brought each of us a gift of a leather bound Tanach, the Hebrew Scriptures. With more than 120 of us on the trip, she signed each copy "with blessings, Rachel Ben Zvi." To this day, I treasure that Bible.

At the bat mitzvah for each of my daughters, I had the opportunity of blessing my child since I am a rabbi. I gave each girl a personal gift on her special day. My daughter Rachel's was obvious. I gave her that Tanach signed by Rachel Ben Zvi. I told Rachel with tears in my eyes that I wanted her to have it and cherish it for many years as I had.

On Friday night, June 28, Temple Beth El in Bradenton will celebrate the anniversary of my becoming a bar mitzvah 50 years to the night since I ascended the pulpit and recited my blessings and Torah portion. We will play an actual recording of me singing those blessings.

If you would like to join us that night -- and even share a one-minute memory of your own bar/bat mitzvah -- please contact me directly by phone or email me at Everyone is cordially invited to my anniversary celebration!

Rabbi Harold F. Caminker is rabbi of Temple Beth El, 4200 32nd St. W., Bradenton. Shabbat services are held at 7:30 p.m. Fridays. For more information, call 941-755-4900 or visit,

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