My wife and I attended a bar mitzvah in Cologne, Germany, for Ari Levy, who is a member of our extended family. We flew to Berlin, arrived on a Wednesday, stayed for a day, and flew to Cologne on Thursday with our son and his three teenage children, who each invited a non-Jewish friend to attend the bar mitzvah.
That was the first of many surprises. We checked into the hotel in Cologne expecting to present a credit card for the room, but the clerk at the counter said we could pay when we leave. It was another surprise as we later found out.
We drove to Bettina’s home, the mother of the bar mitzvah boy, for a catered dinner for all of the 20 or so out-of-town guests. We presented a tallis bag to the bar mitzvah boy, a spectacular needlepoint bag in blue and white that our daughter, in Atlanta, had made but was unable to attend the bar mitzvah. The tallis bag had an intricate design that took several months to make and featured a velvet back that could be zipped to close. It was a first-class piece of work. The boy used the bag with his beautiful new tallis for Shabbos the next day.
On Friday afternoon, we drove to the shul, an enormous building that had been damaged during World War II but had since been completely restored. The outside of the facility had metal barriers to protect the building; the police were present and we had to identify ourselves to a person at the front door who checked our names on a list before we could enter the building. We entered first into a security area and waited for the front door to lock behind us, and then a second secure door opened to let us into the building. The shul was much more secure than any similar synagogue in Atlanta.
A professional photographer took several pictures of family and friends until it was time to light candles in the downstairs floor of building. There was a large area for the women to light candles for the beginning of Shabbos, and it was very emotional to watch so many women doing it.
You had to walk upstairs to the second floor for the main men’s section of the building. The women had to walk another two flights up to the fourth-floor balcony. The overall size of the shul was as large as the Ahavath Achim synagogue in Atlanta, a huge building that could host several thousand people.
As the service began, five Israeli men joined the cantor in leading the service. Bettina had hired this chorus from Israel and the men singing in a capella were flawless, beautifully matched voices that lit up the service in coordination with the Hazzan. It is hard to image what a treat it was for me and all of us to hear the service so beautifully sung. The men were professionally trained, carried different parts of the melody, and made everyone feel the emotion in bringing Shabbos in so beautifully. The chorus sang the next morning for the Shabbos service and also sang Saturday night at the bar mitzvah party. They were a major addition to the event, and added a great deal of joy, passion, and emotion to the entire weekend.
The dinner that night was held on the first floor banquet hall for about 250 people.
Two of the banquet walls held 20 oversized pictures that the Levy family displayed, showing different times in their son’s and their family’s life. The lunch the next day was very special, and it was kosher from a caterer in Berlin, because the caterer in Cologne could not handle a group that size, as well as the party that evening for about another 250 people. As a result, they prepared the food in Berlin on a Thursday, then drove four hours by truck to Cologne, and then stored the food for a day.
Bettina had honored me with giving a D’Var Torah near the end of the meal. I began by speaking a few sentences in German that my children prepared. After that, I said, “This is the longest sentence I have ever given in German, and it is my terrible German to say, “I am honored to give this D’Var Torah, especially for this wonderful bar mitzvah. I will continue in English.”
The audience then applauded, so I knew I had their attention. I reminded the audience, “This week’s Torah reading is Shemos, the beginning of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt under the leadership of Moshe and Aharon in the Torah.”
Near the end of my talk, I said, “Earlier in the Torah, G-d said, ‘Avraham, Avraham.’ Avraham replied, ‘Here I am.’ Then later in the Torah, G-d said, ‘Yaacov, Yaacov,’ and Yaacov replied, ‘Here I am.’ And when G-d said, ‘Moshe, Moshe,’ in this week’s parsha, Moshe also replied, ‘Here I am.’
“So, when your mother or your father, your grandmother or grandfather, your aunts, or your uncles, call your name twice in a row — Ari, Ari, your response is one word, and only one word — and that word is ‘Henayni’ – ‘Here I am.’ What it means is that you will listen, and you will do, you are ready to serve. If you remember one thing from this D’Var Torah, it should be the one word –’Henayni.’ Remember the word, ‘Henayni,’ I am here ready to help.”
Shortly after I spoke, Ari’s grandfather spoke lovingly about his grandson and announced that he was buying a seat in the synagogue for his grandson, since the shul sells seats in the men’s section and puts their name on it. Then, Ari gave his bar mitzvah speech with great presence. I was impressed with his entire presentation, not only for his speech, but for reading two sections of the Torah as he was called up during the Shabbos service for his Aliyah. He was totally prepared for everything he did. I thought about how confident he seemed compared to what I was like at his age.
That night, the party commenced at a private harbor club located along the Rhine River. The men’s chorus sang with the band, the children released balloons to the high ceiling, the food was delicious, tasty, and dairy from a local caterer, the bar was opened all night, there were games for the children, a photo booth to take private pictures, kids food for the children, a special balancing event by two men using a soccer ball with their head, shoulder, neck, and feet that was mesmerizing, and a large open area outside of the dining room for schmoozing. At the end of the evening, there was an outsized buffet of desserts, pies, ice cream, and fruit for all, with a massive vanilla cake featuring a large letter “A” on it for Aaron.
Germany has a formal Jewish Board for the entire country, and the second highest member of that board attended with his own group of bodyguards. He was well known by the attendees, and I had a chance to meet him. He left in two black sedans with his bodyguards, and I was impressed with the security provided to such an important Jew.
As we were leaving the party, we were given a doggy bag that contained new challah covers as a memory of the event, still another surprise. The next day, when we checked out of the hotel, the clerk told us that the room we already paid for.
The last event was a Sunday lunch at the hotel that included much of the desserts left over from the party. It was a fitting end to an amazing weekend. A bar mitzvah in Germany is an equal match to anything we have attended in the U.S.