Readers may recall the article, "'Disco Rabbi' Asks L.A. to Help Israel's Poor" (Nov. 17, 2006), profiling Migdal Ohr's charismatic Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Grossman on his visit to Los Angeles."Pssst, pssst," the girl's whispers echoed in the room. I turned to my best friend, Erin Sharfman, and whispered in awe, "There he is."
His stop at Maimonides Academy inspired Leora Nimmer to invite her sixth-grade class to participate in a mitzvah project -- making beads by hand into bracelets and necklaces for distribution to Ukranian and Russian children from broken homes who attend one of Rabbi Grossman's schools in Northern Israel. During the intermediate days of Passover, Leora celebrated her bat mitzvah with a service and brunch near the Kotel in Jerusalem.
Along with her family and friends, she then traveled to the Galilee to visit Migdal Ohr, Grossman's remarkable institution for 6,000 boys and girls in what was once one of the poorest and most crime-ridden areas of Israel. There the Nimmer group visited a nursery school, helped in a soup kitchen, and presented the homemade jewelry to bat mitzvah girls in a school where the students put on a performance in honor of their American visitors.
The whole room was speechless as we all stood up to give honor to Rabbi Grossman. We watched him walk slowly into the room. He wore a black coat beneath his long white beard, and curled gray payot hung below his black hat. Then, he sat down to enjoy the girls doing their dances, singing and playing instruments. He even waited patiently as they changed costumes and props.
Everyone loved the girls' performances, but I started to feel guilty. Here I was, coming to Israel to do something in order to honor these girls, but now they were actually performing for me.
The music stopped, along with the Slavic dancing. Then a slight girl, no more than 4-foot-9 with shoulder-length brown hair, stood up to deliver a whole speech in Hebrew that started with my name. My head started spinning as I realized she was calling on God to grant me only good things in the future.
"What is happening here?" I wondered. I was supposed to be bringing presents to them, but now they were coming over to give holy books to me.
"What is going on?" I whispered to my father, shifting into a new position that would allow me to hear my dad's answer while listening to the very fancy Hebrew of the girl's speech, which was far above my level.
"They think that today is your bat mitzvah day and that this is a whole celebration," my dad replied softly. I stifled a giggle to watch the rest of the performance with a grin on my face.
Finally, it was my turn to hand out the jewelry made by my sixth-grade classmates in Los Angeles.
"If your jewelry is broken, please let us know because we have extras," my mom said into the microphone.
As my whole family and the Sharfman family, who traveled with us, handed out the envelopes with jewelry in them, we treasured the beautifully colored envelopes personalized with each girl's name on them.
"Yevgenia is not my name!" one girl yelled out.
"My name's not Alexandra!" another girl screeched.
It was only later that we learned the names we had been given were for a class of girls due to return the following week. We had worked on the envelopes so carefully in Los Angeles, writing all the wrong names in elaborate calligraphy.
Everybody laughed about the mistake. The girls absolutely loved the jewelry, and everyone wore her piece proudly. Some even got two or three pieces.
I grew sad as I started thinking about these girls, who were torn from their homes in Moscow and Kiev and had to start all over in Israel with nothing. Is a string of beads that big of a deal to bring such a big smile to their faces?
But Rabbi Grossman interrupted my thoughts when he started to address me. "Leora," he said, "you must be a special person. Typically, everyone who has a bat mitzvah does it just for themselves. The family celebrates, the kid gets a lot of presents. But today is different, because you made your bat mitzvah for other people. People should look up to you."
My heart was pounding. What an honor it was for a tzadik, a righteous scholar, to praise me!
"I am giving you a Sefer Tehilim." Rabbi Grossman then opened the book, and inside was a personal inscription from him. He then reached over to my head and gave me a blessing. I can't describe the feeling; it was such an honor just to meet, let alone to be blessed, by a man who is honored by the whole country.
Some of my family members shed tears, yet I was too happy to cry.
All the girls got together to talk with me, and then something struck me. These girls actually are not unlucky at all. Of course they came from underprivileged homes, and many don't even have a father who lives with them. But they all have Rabbi Grossman, who treats them with respect and makes a home for them at Migdal Ohr.
We said our goodbyes. I gave all the girls big hugs and my e-mail address. They promised to e-mail me.
As I walked out of the classroom, there was a layer of warmth surrounding me. It covered my whole body, and made me feel like I had never felt before.
"So Leora, you can definitely count this mitzvah project as a second bat mitzvah," my grandma said to me as we climbed into our van.Grandma's comment made me think. I thought about how the project didn't mean too much to me in the beginning. I thought about how, at first, I didn't even want to go to Israel to celebrate my bat mitzvah. Instead, I was upset thinking about not having all my friends come to Israel.
But as I learned in the haggadah: dayenu. It would have been enough to just send me to Israel in the first place and to be able to celebrate in Jerusalem, but God gave me much more. A whole table of my closest friends came to join me in Israel. Not only that, He gave me the merit of getting a blessing by Rabbi Grossman, which was the thrill of my life. Most of all, He let me do a big mitzvah.
"Grandma, can I count this visit as 10 bat mitzvahs?" I replied with a smile.
Leora Nimmer is a sixth-grader at Maimonides Academy in Los Angeles.