At 80, Holocaust survivor Ivan Gabor finally revels in his bar mitzvah

Ivan Gabor, left, with wife Rebecca, son Gabe and daughter-in-law Lili, attending Florida International University's annual Torch Awards ceremony in 2012.

Ivan Gabor, left, with wife Rebecca, son Gabe and daughter-in-law Lili, attending Florida International University’s annual Torch Awards ceremony in 2012.

(JTA) — Ivan and Rebecca Gabor have been married for 34 years. And for 34 years, Rebecca had heard her husband lament that he never had a bar mitzvah celebration.

Born in Transylvania, Ivan and his family moved to Hungary when he was a young child, changing their last name from Grossman to Gabor. When the Nazis came, his father was sent to a forced labor camp; Ivan and his mother went into hiding.

His father returned at the end of the war but was very sick, said Gabor, whose self-published memoir, “Echoes of My Footsteps,” tells the story of his survival and his life in Israel and Argentina before settling in the United States in 1977.

“He was planning my bar mitzvah,” Gabor said. “He even wrote a speech. But he passed away. I never had a bar mitzvah.”

“Every time we would go to a bar mitzvah, he would say ‘I never had a bar mitzvah,’ ” Rebecca said.

Their son, Gabe, adds, “I can’t remember a time in my life when he didn’t remind me of the fact that he didn’t have a bar mitzvah.”

Rebecca decided to do something about it — without telling her husband.

She had an invitation sent to their Sunny Isles, Fla., home, inviting the couple to a 40th wedding anniversary celebration for friends to be held at Beit Torah in Aventura, Fla. The Gabors walked into the reception hall and Ivan discovered the invitation was a ruse. It turned out he was the guest of honor at an 80th birthday party.

“They yelled ‘Surprise!’ ” Gabor said. “They came over to congratulate me.”

But there was a second surprise for Gabor, not to mention a majority of the 180 guests: They were ushered into the sanctuary, where Gabor was presented with a tallit. Rabbi Isaac Galimidi-Hodara led him in the blessing before walking Gabor to the ark for what the rabbi called a “mitzvah ceremony.”

While it’s not uncommon for men to mark a second bar mitzvah ceremony at age 83, in recognition of the 13 years they’ve lived beyond the traditional three score and 10 mentioned in Psalms, Rebecca chose Gabor’s 80th birthday as an appropriate time.

“I was so surprised that I don’t remember exactly how the ceremony went,” Gabor said. “I was a little confused.”

He does remember that his son read a translation of the letter that his own father had written to him all those years ago.

“You must also consider that if you cannot accomplish your desires all by yourself, your decisions about your future — especially the serious ones — will also include help and consideration towards your parents, so they can continue helping you in the direction of your life’s choices,” reads the letter, which Gabor had read to his daughter when she became a bat mitzvah. She died two years ago.

“I never thought somebody would read it and translate it at my bar mitzvah,” Gabor said.

Four days later, Gabor was called to the Torah at Temple Moses-Sephardic Congregation in Miami.

“It was Rosh Hashanah, but we celebrated as though at a regular bar mitzvah,” Galimidi-Hodara said. “I had a chance to dance with him on the bimah.”

The celebration, Gabe says, demonstrates a story of “perseverance for the Jewish people, that 67 years later we’re still able to do this and the goals that Hitler set out weren’t achieved.”

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