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It’s Never Too Late For a Bar Mitzvah

When Matthew Jurgens was a toddler, his mother’s dying wish for was for him to become a bar mitzvah. Now 31, he’s fulfilled it with the help of a special rabbi.

Jonathan Zalman
June 30, 2015
Photo courtesy of Avrohom Perl Photography
Photo courtesy of Avrohom Perl Photography
Photo courtesy of Avrohom Perl Photography
Photo courtesy of Avrohom Perl Photography

Oh hey, here’s an uplifting video to brighten your day. This is the story of Matthew Jurgens’s bar mitzvah.

In the early 80’s, shortly after Jurgens was born, his mother was diagnosed with leukemia. She received treatment at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola, NY on Long Island. “I have one fuzzy memory of my mother which involves me playing a card game with her when she was in the hospital,” wrote Jurgens, now 31.

Soon, Rabbi Perl of Chabad of Mineola visited Jurgens’s mother at the hospital. “No matter what happens to me,” she told him, “please promise me that Matthew will one day become a bar mitzvah.” Jurgens’s mother died when Matthew was 2 years, 8 months old.

Though Jurgens’s mother was Jewish, his father was not, and eventually he remarried to a woman who was also not Jewish. They sent him to Catholic school one day a week, and when Matthew was 8 years old, he chose to be baptized. “As unconscious a decision that this may have been, I thought I would be happier this way,” wrote Jurgens. “And for a time, I was.”

But then when I was thirteen, I received the worst news I had received in 11 years. I had lost my grandfather, Les Goldman, without any warning. At the funeral, I ran into someone that I had only heard about in stories, but never fully remembered on my own—a wonderful Rabbi by the name of Rabbi Perl. Rabbi Perl looked at me and with his warm smile and said, in his unmistakable English accent, “You know, we still have to talk about the Bar Mitzvah for you, dear boy.”

A year later, Jurgens was sitting in church when the priest mentioned his mother’s name in remembrance.

Her name echoed throughout my head and resonated in my heart…I naturally looked at my father—he shook his head as if to say that it wasn’t him who asked for her name to be uttered…My jaw nearly hit the floor. Right then and there I realized…this just isn’t right—I’m not meant to be here. I’m not meant to be doing this. This is not my path.

Though I went through with the rest of the day, I knew right then and there that this life, this religion, was not my identity.

At the age of 24, Jurgens married a Jewish woman named Lori. They have a daughter named Madeline; soon, their life would grow even more.

At a bar mitzvah, Jurgens’s aunt gave Rabbi Perl, who was officiating the ceremony, Matthew’s cell phone number. Perl sent Jurgens a text message telling him that he could still become a bar mitzvah if he so desired. So Matthew studied, and in May, the ceremony took place.

Rabbi pearl calls Matthew’s bar mitzvah a direct connection between the physical and spiritual. “It was a pretty life affirming day,” Jurgens said. “A beautiful way to bring this story full circle.”

Here’s a video of their story, below:

Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.