It's never too late: Bar Mitzvah at 81 at the Western Wall

Michael Benkler was four when he saw his parents for the last time and was placed in an orphanage where he lost his Jewish identity.

Michael Benkler on his Bar Mitzva day. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Michael Benkler on his Bar Mitzva day.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Bar Mitzvah ceremonies, and their accompanying lavish parties, are a rite of passage for Jewish boys around the world. But in the darker chapters of the Jewish people’s recent history, not everyone was able to enjoy and celebrate this milestone of their lives.
Michael Benkler was one such person, but on Monday morning this week at the age of 81, he celebrated his Bar Mitzva for the first time in his life at the Western Wall, as part of a social project run by local activists in conjunction with a new Hesder Yeshiva in Ofakim.
Benkler was born in Birobidzhan, in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast created by the Soviet Union in Russia’s far east.
He was four years old when he saw his parents for the last time and was then placed in an orphanage where he lost his Jewish identity and his connection to Judaism.
But he remained in Birobidzhan where he worked as a plumber, and despite being totally disconnected from his Jewish roots as a result of the Communist regime and his separation from his family, he immigrated to Israel in 1995. For the last 16 years he has lived in an old age home in Ofakim.
Following the IDF’s Operation Pillar of Defense at the end of 2012, during which Ofakim was subjected to heavy rocket fire, local resident and social activist Yahaloma Zechut along with other backers decided to create a values and heritage based project for the city.
Together with Rabbi Menachem Neuberger, the dean of the Ofakim Hesder Yeshiva, and another local rabbi Yisrael Revach, they initiated what was called the “B’zchut Rom” project, to provide local boys approaching the age of Bar Mitzva with access to a course of studies on the meaning of the milestone and the ceremony and Jewish values and heritage.
Assisting with the project and the arrangements for the ceremony and the day in Jerusalem were Rabbis Haim Miller and Uri Ayalon
The first Bar Mitzvah ceremony resulting from the project was that which took place on Monday morning with two boys from Ofakim, who were joined by Benkler.
He was connected to the yeshiva’s project by the same local activist, and his grandson, Dima, was one of the 13-year old boys who joined the yeshiva’s project and participated in the ceremony this week.  
On Monday morning, Benkler had his Bar Mitzvah and was called up to the Torah at the Western Wall, as was Dima, and both of them put on talit and tephillin for the first time.
In addition to Benkler, two other elderly men from Ofakim also participated in the Bar Mitzvah ceremony.
Haviv and Nissim Levi, brothers aged 81 and 76 respectively, were born and grew up Egypt.
But due to the prevailing hostile atmosphere at the time of their Bar Mitzvas, they were forced to celebrate them in hiding due to a fear of violent actions directed towards a public Jewish celebration.
The brothers, who were also connected to the Hesder Yeshiva in Ofakim, said that they wished to celebrate their Bar Mitzvah “in a Israeli and Jewish environment and not in an atmosphere of fear.”   
The Hesder Yeshiva in Ofakim is a branch of the Meir Harel Hesder Yeshiva in Modiin, which initiated its Bar Mitzva Program in Modiin some seven years ago.
Approximately 150 boys from non-religious families in Modiin participate every year in the
program, in which they meet together as well as in a one-on-one setting with some of the yeshiva students, and also engage in volunteer projects.
Rabbi Shenvald said it was especially moving that men who had not had a Bar Mitzvah, or not had it in a fitting environment, wanted to fill this void and be called up to the Totah,
“This was a really unique experience that residents of Ofakim in their 70s and 80s participated in the same Bar Mitzvah ceremony as thirteen-year old boys,” the rabbi said.
“The special excitement of this occasion really connected everyone who was present, we were fortunate and overjoyed to be part of it.”