Miracle Bar Mitzvah is a Study in Courage

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Oz Atal’s Bar Mitzvah was never supposed to be this way. The bright, outgoing youngster was diligently learning to chant his Torah portion and couldn’t wait to celebrate the event with his family and his eighth-grade Boys Town Jerusalem classmates. Yet no one could have imagined the tragedy that would strike Oz Atal just months before his 13th birthday–or the remarkable courage that he, his family and Boys Town would muster to miraculously observe his Bar Mitzvah.

Exactly four months before the Bar Mitzvah, Oz (Hebrew for “strength”) had just started attending a summer day camp at Boys Town Jerusalem. As he crossed the street on his return home, he was hit and run over by a bus, sustaining critical head injuries as well as serious internal injuries. For six full weeks, the young boy lay in a deep coma. Since regaining consciousness just over two months ago, Oz is paralyzed and wheelchair-bound, and struggling to regain his cognitive skills. His parents have not left his side, while juggling their care for his six brothers and sisters. His Boys Town teachers and classmates have been with Oz throughout the ordeal, from the intensive care unit of Hadassah Hospital to his present hospitalization in the Alyn Pediatric Rehabilitation Center. Over the past weeks, it became very clear to the Boys Town “family” that as fragile as Oz was, they would do everything to make the impossible happen and enable him to mark his Bar Mitzvah.

Hoisting his wheelchair to the school’s Beren Synagogue, the eighth graders, their rabbis and teachers, and Oz’s parents, grandparents and siblings joined Oz in the Monday morning services and Torah reading. The boy’s tefillin (phylacteries) lay just over the jagged scar that crosses the top of his forehead. A hush fell over the synagogue as Oz was called to the Torah. Lifting him gently in his arms, his father held the boy close to the open scroll. Almost imperceptibly, with all the strength he could gather, Oz slowly whispered the ancient blessing.

“Boys Town has been with us throughout,” said Yael Atal, Oz’s mother. “They were by our side in the Intensive Care unit while Oz was comatose, and as he’s progressed, they’ve organized students to visit and even to study with him in the Alyn Rehabilitation Hospital. During the New Year holidays, his rabbis and teachers came to give us all their blessings. Rabbi Elimelech Ya’akov, head of Jewish studies and someone Oz already adored, has been here to support us from the day of the accident till this moment, and comes every Thursday evening to the hospital to talk and study with Oz. During the Sukkot holiday when Oz was able to come home for several hours, Rabbi Elimelech gave our family a tremendous boost by bringing a group of classmates, rabbis and teachers to our sukkah at home. They came laden with guitars and food and drink, and celebrated with a joy that went straight to our hearts.”

“Every principal dreads the phone call I got reporting Oz’s accident,” notes Rabbi David Twersky, principal of the junior high school. “While I’m sure that all schools would rally to such a challenge, at Boys Town I felt the heart and soul of the entire institution coming together to save Oz. From the first moments, we organized to function on many different levels. In addition to the rabbis who stayed with the family in the hospital, we assembled the student body and staff for special, very fervent prayers for Oz to recover. Once school started in September, we began bringing several of Oz’s friends to visit him in the Alyn Hospital. Now that Oz is getting stronger, his teacher Rabbi Doron Book is taking four different students every Tuesday to study with Oz at Alyn. Beforehand, we brought a psychologist to prepare the students for the difficult sights of this hospital, and for how to communicate with Oz.”

“It was really frightening in the beginning to see Oz and so many other kids with such terrible problems,” said his friend Moshiko Rose, who recently celebrated his own Bar Mitzvah as well. “I tell Oz about what’s happening in school, and I keep telling him how much we miss him.” Classmate Aelu Kata explained, “In the beginning, Oz couldn’t talk at all, but he could communicate a bit by moving his finger. Now he can shake hands and even speak a few words.” Adds Moshiko, “We know he understands us.”

The idea for celebrating Oz’s Bar Mitzvah at Boys Town was the brainchild of Rabbi Elimelech Ya’akov. But it didn’t stop at “just” the emotional service in the school’s synagogue. The following Saturday night, a gala Bar Mitzvah celebration was held in the school for Boys Town students and the entire Atal family, complete with a festive meal, a (volunteer) musical performance, and very spirited singing and dancing for Oz by his classmates, family, and friends.

“There are no words to express our thanks to Boys Town,” Yael Atal said. “I can’t imagine any other school going to such tremendous efforts to help and support us.” Says Rabbi Elimelech Ya’akov, “When a tragedy of this dimension occurs, there’s a need for enormous faith and strength. Our prayers are with Oz and his entire family.”

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