The first-ever Chassidic bar mitzvah in Pasco County—a mix of rural and suburban neighborhoods on Florida’s west coast near Tampa—drew about 250 people from the area, as well as from Massachusetts, New York, France and even Russia.
“It was amazing. It was absolutely nothing like others I have been to,” said Scott Morris, 52, who works locally as a swimming-pool contractor, has two children in college and has lived for 30 years in Oldsmar, Fla.
About six months ago, Morris took a class with Rabbi Yossi Eber, who since 2006 has served as co-director of Chabad of West Pasco in Trinity, Fla., with his wife, Dina. He said it changed his life.
“I absolutely fell in love with a form of Judaism I never knew,” he said.
“They are the most genuine, down-to-earth, nicest people you could ever meet,” he said of the Ebers and their six children, including two sets of twins. “Even if you don’t follow all the rules [of observant Judaism], there’s no judgment. They accept you as you are.”
Morris attended the December bar mitzvah of Tzvi, the Ebers’ oldest child and only son.
“You walked in and felt like you entered another country. There were guys with beards and black hats and coats. But within minutes, you could feel the warmth and camaraderie,” he described. “It was just an incredible evening.”
He said he has traveled the world and observed numerous cultural celebrations in other countries, yet “dancing with them that night was transformational.”
‘Definitely a First’
Rabbi Eber explained that the ceremony and the celebration were done like they would have been in New York. Even the musician was a friend from New York, who played traditional Chassidic music, as opposed to contemporary tunes.
“The spirit of the night was so awesome,” he said. “After all the planning, you see in a very real way what it turned into—something very special.”
In fact, the couple says the arrangements were so all-encompassing that it took a while for them to get back to normal.
Dina Eber affirmed that “it was a very public event, and for many people here, their first time at a simcha in a long while. For many, it was their first time at a Chassidic event or even a traditional bar mitzvah. It was a definitely a first.”
She acknowledged that some were surprised by the separation of men and women for the duration of the evening, but like many new experiences since the Ebers have been there, they took it in stride. “It became really fun and very real,” she said.
“That’s what people are looking for—a sense of community, of having an identity” in the heart of a very non-Jewish area, where some Jews are completely disconnected, she explained. “People are taking on mitzvahs, eating kosher and just aware of being Jewish in general. They’re taking classes and programs, and enjoying the holidays.”
This year, for example, about 50 people came to their Purim party, and 100 or more are expected at their Passover seder.
‘Happiness Through the Room’
Janet Carroll, now in her 80s, used to live in the northeastern part of the United States, but for more than 20 years now has resided in New Port Richey, Fla.
She was in awe over the bar mitzvah arrangements. The venue was a local hall, and so everything had to come in from the outside, much of it from out of the area, she explained, including all of the dishes, utensils and kosher food. “That was a monumental task. It was mind-boggling. It was as if every single part was done by a friend or relative.”
Plus, “people were there from all over the world; that, in itself, was different,” she said.
During the event, the Ebers introduced family members from around the United States and the world, including Dina’s brother and his family, who all came the way from Moscow. Dina Eber herself grew up in France, where her father serves a spiritual dean for a yeshivah.
“I never had such a good time in my whole life as I had at that bar mitzvah,” said Carroll. “I cannot tell you what a joy it was to get up and dance with all those women. Not since I was a teenager have I done those dances, heard that music.”
Carroll actually tutored Tzvi in reading when he was a little boy. Now, she marveled, “he’s a young man.”
Barbara Goldblatt, 65, another community member who attended the event, said: “That night was one of the most beautiful nights I have ever experienced.”
“I’ve been to many bar mitzvahs,” said Goldblatt, who moved from New York to New Port Richey in 2001. “At this one, as a Jew, you could feel G-d all over the place. It was just so joyous! The look on the rabbi’s face was enough to make your heart melt. Happiness was all through the room.”
Which is fitting, she said, as Rabbi Eber “always has time to help others, to listen to somebody.”
As for the service, she noted that it was exceptional. “When Tzvi got up and spoke … I’m not an emotional person, but it brought tears to my eyes.”
“I believe,” she said, “G-d brought me down here from New York for this.”