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Jewish Journal

The Purim Bar Mitzvah

By Rabbi Levi Yitzchock Cunin

March 26, 2014 | 11:24 am

A Purim Bar Mitzvah for Aaron Steinberg at Pepperdine University. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Levi Yitzchock Cunin

A Purim Bar Mitzvah for Aaron Steinberg at Pepperdine University. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Levi Yitzchock Cunin

An extraordinary event, perhaps transformational, occurred here in Malibu California during Purim.   Before I tell you more, let me provide a personal context.

It may seem paradoxical, but although I am a FFB (frum from birth), my first natural reaction is to be  a skeptic. Frum means, of course, a religiously observant and strictly orthodox Jew.   Thus, many believe that I, as a Chabad rabbi, should be certain of everything, but I now confess, in print, I’m not. Not even close!

Actually, in growing up, I was just like many boys ­-- preferring fun and games to religious study.  I was rebellious.  I asked lots of questions, and I was not always satisfied with the answers. My teachers were more successful in communicating with me lofty ideas only when they seemed relevant to me and therefore resonated.

Like most of us, I am a product of my upbringing and the memories of my parents.  As a rabbi, I know that Jews must delve deeply into our wonderful history, but we must also move forward.

Let me share a story I heard from Rebbitzen Blumah Leah Lokshin OBM, my Bubbe (Yiddish for grandmother), who passed away this past year at the age of 103.  My bubbe grew up in Moscow, where her father served as the chief Rabbi.  There was a kind woman who worked in her home as a maid and was not Jewish, but she had come to love and respect my grandparents.  This woman saved hundreds, maybe thousands, of Jews. Her benevolence was secret and never revealed. So what did this heroic woman do? Well, her son was one of the local Catholic priests who was responsible for the ongoing pogroms where Jews were robbed of their property, and even raped and murdered. 

One can only wonder what type of darkness persuaded  a "man of G-d" to facilitate the murder of innocent men, women and children.  His mother, the maid, would discreetly find out what her son (the Catholic priest) had planned for the next would-be victims and share the information with my great-grandfather.   While this story of her goodness is not isolated, because many Christians saved Jews, so many European Christians were overtly hostile toward Judaism, and they have mistreated Jews.

In America, we have seen a Christian tradition that, however inconsistent at times in acceptance of Judaism and Jews, has been unlike the tragic history of Europe.   Christians in America have been relatively hospitable to Jews.  Still, I have continued as a skeptic, and I have remained suspicious.  That maid in Moscow should have inspired me to recognize the goodness in many Christians, but I also recalled, again and again, the pogroms.  In my heart, I do believe goodness will prevail, just as it did in the Purim story.


Now, it is increasingly clear to me that while bigotry and prejudice in our society continue, and there is no shortage of anti-Semites, that we are undeniably in a great and historic period of reconciliation with our Christian neighbors.

Since I became a rabbi 20 plus years ago, I have found myself struggling with how to reconcile tradition and the old with the novel and the new.  I know for certain that we pass on, from one generation to the next, certain tenets and values of Judaism that are immutable.   But what of the hatred and oppression that Jews have faced in a variety of societies?  Is religious animosity also permanent? Are we part of a self-fulfilling prophecy?    Is there a “the more things change, the more they stay the same” syndrome? Or, beyond the divisions in the world, is there hope?

On Sunday, March 16, I was honored to conduct a Bar Mitzvah at the top of Pepperdine University, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Among the many distinguished guests and prominent community leaders was Ed Royce, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee

Consider this precedent-shattering event.  It was a Purim Bar Mitzvah, where we confronted an ancient time in which a prime minister wanted a Jew to bow down to government.

The Bar Mitzvah service of Aaron Steinberg was outdoors on a high bluff.   We brought an ark and a Torah to Pepperdine, which is a Christian university.   Hundreds of people watched and participated.   Then, we entered the adjacent Wilburn auditorium for the Bar Mitzvah boy to give a speech and then a spirited reading of the Megillah.   What a mitzvah to make the reading of the Megillah available to so many.

I later learned that a Pepperdine dean said our service made that venue on the Pepperdine bluffs a “holy place.”  What a wonderful thing to say.

{טו: הֵסִ֤יר יְ'ה'וָ'ה֙' מִשְׁפָּטַ֔יִךְ פִּנָּ֖ה אֹֽיְבֵ֑ךְ מֶ֣לֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵ֤ל ׀ יְ'ה'וָ'ה֙' בְּקִרְבֵּ֔ךְ לֹא־תִֽירְאִ֥י רָ֖ע עֽוֹד׃

"Hashem has removed your afflictions; He has cast out your enemy. The King of Israel, Hashem, is in your midst-you shall no longer fear evil." ~ Zephaniah 3:15

Indeed, hearing the words of the Torah being read on the very top of Pepperdine, made me realize that the time of the big light we are all waiting for is already here!

And as a Chabadnik, it gave new meaning to the words I heard the Rebbe say "Moshiach is already here, all we have to do is open up our eyes"

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