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Jewish Stars: A Conversation with Joshua Rush

The Disney star on his real life and on-air Bar Mitzvahs, balancing his faith and his schedule, and the pleasures of doing the Hora

Malina Saval
April 17, 2018
Beryt Nisenson
ANDI MACK - Joshua Rush Bar Mitzvah acquired imageBeryt Nisenson
Beryt Nisenson
ANDI MACK - Joshua Rush Bar Mitzvah acquired imageBeryt Nisenson

Becoming a bar mitzvah can be an overwhelming and stressful experience for teenage boys—the months spent practicing one’s haftarah, the obligatory socializing with unctuously affectionate relatives from out of town and the residual lipstick marks left on one’s cheek, the penning of a compelling thank you speech that somehow incorporates both Avraham aveinu and that iPhoneX you always wanted. Most 13 year-old boys are more than happy to be done with the synagogue service portion of their big day and revel in whatever after-party follows their becoming a man according to Jewish law.

But Joshua Rush, the 16 year-old LA-based actor who plays Cyrus on Disney’s hit series Andi Mack, did his bar mitzvah twice—once for real, with his family and friends in attendance, and once in a scripted episode of the show, titled “Cyrus’ Bash-Mitzvah!,” currently airing on the popular kids cable network through the end of April.

“It was known that Cyrus was 13 and it was known that he was Jewish, and it was just another facet of that character,” says Rush, who lives in Los Angeles when he’s not shooting Andi Mack in Salt Lake City, Utah. “He’s so layered and three-dimensional. The minute that I put all those things together, I said to Terri Minsky, who is our showrunner, our creator, our writer, ‘When’s Cyrus’ Bar Mitzvah?’ And it took about a season and a half of nagging Terri. She is Jewish as well. Finally she gave in and told me, ‘We’re writing Cyrus’ Bar Mitzvah.’”

Technically, a Jewish boy becomes a bar mitzvah at age 13 and one day, but due to his busy acting schedule—“I did Sunday school until fourth grade, but then auditions kept coming up every time I was supposed to be in Hebrew school”—Rush’s ceremony came a bit later, when he was 14. He and his family celebrated the coming-of-age event in Israel, on Kibbutz Gezer.

“We did it right before we shot the pilot for [Andi Mack],” says Rush. “I have a bunch of family that lives in Kiryat Ono and my grandfather lives in Ramat Gan. So we’ve got a bunch of family strewn all about Israel, and we figured, ‘Well, if we’re going to do a bar mitzvah, we might as well do it there. We might as well do it in the Holy Land.’ We even did it at 5 p.m. so we could live-stream it to everybody at home in the States.”

An American rabbi presided over the ceremony—“he was a little bit cooler with us doing a more reformed ceremony, faster than the entirely Orthodox ceremony”—and Rush enlisted the help of his Israeli cousins and his childhood rabbi from Los Angeles for help with learning the Hebrew portions of the service.

“They all helped me a lot to prepare for it, and it ended up being a great time,” says Rush.

Rush even recited this same Torah portion on the bar mitzvah episode of Andi Mack.

“It’s the same one, which was mostly as a result of myself not wanting to learn another Torah portion,” he says. “It was difficult enough learning it the first time, and relearning it was pretty easy with that memory already stored in there. Relearning the parts that I had forgotten was easier because I can read it a lot better now.”

The synagogue scenes for the episode were shot at Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City, and the cast and crew, some of whom knew little to nothing about Jewish life, were able to cultivate a sort of crash course in Jewish customs, which Rush hopes “will be really helpful when we get into high holidays in season three.”

“I feel proud of my Judaism and I feel glad that the show allows me to express that,” he says. “We really realized that a lot of the production assistants had never been in a Jewish temple before and didn’t really get what it was about, so I had a really interesting and exciting time sharing my culture and showing them what Judaism was all about that day. So that was really fun, and I think it’s going to be really cool for everybody watching the episode to get a chance to experience that.”

Following his bar mitzvah in Israel, Rush’s family planned a low-key party in a little Arab town near the Kibbutz.

“It was a really cool restaurant that was built into a cave,” he said. “We rented out the restaurant for the night, and that was pretty much it. We wanted to keep it low-key. Holding an expensive party and airfare to Israel and two weeks in Israel can get pretty expensive on its own, so we kept it small and I was happy with that. The only thing that I didn’t get to do was the crazy huge Bar Mitzvah party. I was really bummed that I never got to do the Hora.”

But on Andi Mack, Rush finally did get to partake in the traditional celebratory Israeli dance.

“The [bar mitzvah party] in the show is probably the second or third most outlandish Bar Mitzvah party that I’ve ever seen, which is really saying something, because they had two chocolate fountains!” says Rush. “And I finally got to do the Hora, so I can cross that off my list. I finally got to sit in the chair.”

For Rush, observing his Judaism in an industry where one’s work schedule is not usually open to negotiations—sets don’t close for Rosh Hashanah, for example—is relatively easy. But there are exceptions.

“Much to my own sadness, I ended up needing to work on Yom Kippur this year, which was frustrating but I understood it,” he says. “I ended up being sick the week before, and I had to work on Yom Kippur. But for the most part, I would say that’s the only time my Judaism and my work have ever conflicted. And Asher [Angel], who plays Jonah on the show, is Jewish as well. For the most part, the crew and the production is very accommodating to all the different Jewish holidays.”

But while his role on Andi Mack allowed him the opportunity to partake in over-the-top bar mitzvah party festivities—hora included—he still wouldn’t trade in that special trip to Israel.

“Going to Israel, I became super connected with my cousins,” he says. “I think it was one of my last days there that I decided, ‘Wow, after I finish my last year of Spanish class, I’m going to start Hebrew next year.’ And then it was going to Jerusalem and being at the Western Wall… and we floated in the Dead Sea. I developed such a strong connection to Israel and the country and my family there. I wouldn’t trade any of that for just the chair dance!”

Malina Saval is the Features Editor at Variety and the author of The Secret Lives of Boys: Inside the Raw Emotional World of Male Teens and the novel Jewish Summer Camp Mafia.