Rabbi Jay Karzen, dubbed “the bar mitzvah king” of Jerusalem, has performed thousands of b’nai mitzvah over the last 30 years, averaging about 100 a year. One of the first rabbis to offer formal b’nai mitzvah services at the Kotel for families from abroad, he has some wild stories to tell.
After making aliyah from Chicago in 1985, he needed a job. A then-prominent rabbi at the now-defunct Maine Township Jewish Congregation in Des Plaines, Illinois, Karzen had performed many Jewish lifecycle celebrations and figured a bar mitzvah business would be a good avenue to explore.
“Families would come and bring their groups to the Kotel, and I saw the ceremonies were sometimes un-meaningful. It was chaos. I figured I could upgrade the bar mitzvah experience,” says Karzen, 81, who acknowledges that he now has some steep competition.
Karzen also performs bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies at Robinson’s Arch, Masada and other sites around Israel.
His book “Off the Wall” (1999) chronicles humorous tales spanning his rabbinic career.
During a recent interview at his posh Jerusalem home, the rabbi shared a number of his best tales — such as the time a family asked if they could rent the entire Kotel because they were expecting several guests and wanted a private party.
Another: “A South African family was among the first to book me for their bar mitzvah,” he recalls. Before printing invitations to the event, they wanted to know the address of the Kotel.
He assured them that no address was necessary, and that “Kotel” or “Western Wall” would suffice. But the family would not accept his answer. Karzen called various government offices, from Jerusalem City Hall to the Ministry of Religion, all of which enjoyed a chuckle at his expense. Though they couldn’t give him an answer (because the Kotel has no address), Karzen knew he could not get back to the family without a street number.
“So I composed an address: The Western Wall: 1 Kotel Plaza. Believe me, that is exactly what the invitation read,” he says with a laugh.
Then there was the boy who came with his tzitzit snipped from his tallit because his mother “didn’t want all those extra strings hanging down.”
One family asked the rabbi if they could order tefillin in a different color, maybe blue, because “black is so somber.”
An American family contacted Karzen for a Thanksgiving Day bar mitzvah. In her first correspondence, the mother proudly let the rabbi know that she had haredi family members in Israel who would be attending the ceremony. She hired a top bar mitzvah tutor in the U.S. to prepare her son.
“During my meeting with them the night before the service, I discovered that the celebrant had learned the wrong Torah portion. That Thursday was Rosh Hodesh, the new Hebrew month. There is a special monthly reading on such days,” Karzen recalls. “What was I to do?”
Karzen “told the family there would be two Torah readings that day — the regular weekly portion that the bar mitzvah bocher [student] had learned, as well as a special reading in honor of the new Hebrew month.”
Then he called a member of the haredi family and explained the situation, asking him to pass the message to his relatives. The bar mitzvah boy never knew about the error, according to Karzen.
“Crazy things happen,” he says.