Zachary’s family had hoped to celebrate his bar mitzvah in Israel. Instead, they opted to host local and out-of-town guests in their hometown of Atlanta in July. I had worked with Zachary over Zoom to prepare for his bar mitzvah and was getting ready to travel to Atlanta to officiate his service when I received an email from his mom.
She wrote that Zachary’s uncle (her ex-husband’s brother-in-law) had been visiting his brother in Miami the prior week. They were home at his condo in Surfside when the building collapsed. Both men were unaccounted for and presumed dead.
She said the bar mitzvah would go on as planned, albeit with a very different mood.
I called her right away and offered my deepest sympathies for what the entire family must have been going through at that time. I knew that this would no longer be just another bar mitzvah that I would officiate. I suspected that I would now be called upon in a pastoral role to offer comfort and to try to help the grieving family that had not yet received confirmation of their loved one's death.
Some family members, including the children of the uncle who was missing in the condominium collapse, had not originally been planning to attend the bar mitzvah but were now going to be there to represent their side of the family. During the entire flight to Atlanta, I tried to think of how to talk with the family members who were not yet in the formal period of mourning because they still were holding out hope that their two relatives would be found alive in the wreckage. I have comforted many families after the death of a loved one, but never following such a tragic accident that had been covered in the news on a global scale.
In my role as a rabbi, I inevitably become close with the family of the bar or bat mitzvah. Even if I’m traveling from Metro Detroit to their community to officiate the simcha and have only met the family members virtually on Zoom, there’s a certain bond that occurs when a family celebrates a life-cycle event with a rabbi. In this case, I felt that bond as soon as I entered their home.
It felt more like a shiva than a bar mitzvah. We sat and talked about the tragedy in Surfside and how the family could remain hopeful while beginning to accept the reality that their loved one would not be found alive in the wreckage. We talked about trying to celebrate life with the bar mitzvah ceremony even — or especially — amidst such tragedy.
I reminded them of the story in the Torah when the Israelites were prepared to consecrate the Mishkan (God’s tabernacle) in the wilderness. That event was set to be a purely joyful event with great anticipation and celebration. Then tragedy befell the nation when two brothers, Aaron’s sons, died tragically. The Israelites had to deal with grief and consolation together with their feelings of joyous celebration.
Zachary did great. His mom shared that, as unreal as Surfside still seemed, she was grateful that we had the opportunity to gather and grieve together. For me, the entire experience serves as a stark reminder that Judaism commands us to come together in times of joy and of suffering.
Rabbi Jason Miller is the founder of mitzvahrabbi.com and officiates bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies locally in Metro Detroit and around the globe.