My D’var Torah (Bar Mitzvah Speech)

I am so honored to be here today with you to celebrate my Bar Mitzvah. I am so happy that you came here to help me celebrate.

Many of you are probably asking why did my father, mother and I travel all of the way from America to be with you on this special day for me.

We started planning for my Bar Mitzvah in New York City where I live. Bar Mitzvahs can be a lot about the party.

Our family thought that this could miss some of the spirit of the Bar Mitzvah day. As my parents and teachers at Rodeph Sholom pointed out, Bar Mitzvah means “old enough to do mitzvot, that is, good deeds.” We decided that we would try to put more Mitzvah in my Bar Mitzvah.

I have always been interested in Africa. My family thought that it would be good if we could find a small, Jewish community outside of America with whom we could share my Bar Mitzvah and which could benefit from our mitzvah. By doing so, my Bar Mitzvah would be a more meaningful event for all of us.

We discussed our ideas with the rabbis at Rodeph Sholom. One of the rabbis suggested the Abayudaya. Fortunately, my Tzadakah leader, Noam Katz, had spent several months with you and he was very positive.

We contacted Aaron and other leaders of your community.

We were amazed at how open, friendly and welcoming your community is. When Aaron visited the United States this fall, we had the honor of having him for dinner in our home. And when we finally got here, we saw how committed the community is to living a Jewish life together despite the daily hardships.

Welcoming Shabbat Friday night in a circle around the bimah was a really moving experience for me as a Jew and as a human being. So was the Kiddush and dinner at Aaron’s family’s house.

On the way from Kampala to Mbale, Samson, who has been our expert guide, stopped at Jinja to show us the source of the Nile. The Nile, of course, passes through Egypt where my parashah, Shemot, and Exodus occurs.

At last Saturday morning’s service, Aaron asked the community whether the world has gotten better or worse since the Creation. I really don’t know the answer to that question. But what I learned from my Hebrew classes at Rodeph is that Exodus suggests that the Jews did indeed progress from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. But to reach the Promised Land, the Jews had to wander in the desert for forty years. The Jews had to wander for so many years because they had to learn how to live together as a community by performing the mitzvot. Only then could the Jews enter the Promised Land.

Your community wants to be connected to Jews around the world. There is also a desire for knowledge not only about Judaism but about the world as well. You believe that you have a lot to learn from Jews in the United States. But in many respects, it is we Jews in the United States who have a lot to learn from you. In our desire for material things, we have lost much of the spirit, community and carrying out of the mitzvot that your community has. Even though your hardships are many, you seem like you have so much. You are so rich in spirit. Your sense of community is so great and everyone has such big smiles.

I feel very honored and privileged to celebrate my Bar Mitzvah with you.

Delivered December 28-29, 2007, in Mbale, Uganda
(The Abayudaya translated Zak’s talk into Luganda, line by line.)