LOS ANGELES, CA — Each week, a group of more than 120 congregants gather together at Kol Yakov Yehuda for their regular Shabbat prayer. The rabbi gives a sermon, the president makes announcements and the congregation follows along with the occasional chitchat, followed by a Kiddush. In addition to having its own Web site and an annual fundraising banquet, Kol Yakov Yehuda seems like any highly functional congregation.
Except the congregants are too young to vote or drive, and many can’t see a PG-13 movie without a parent.
Kol Yakov Yehuda — The Rebbe’s Diamond Junior Daveners — is redefining the idea of typical youth services, and participation of the bar mitzvah-age students in its minyans, fundraisers and trips is comparable to that of many adult congregations.
A branch of Chabad Lubavitch Congregation Levi Yiztchok in Hancock Park, Kol Yakov Yehuda was organized and is overseen by Rabbi Mendel Duchman, who came up with the idea more than six years ago, when his 7-year-old son was regularly lost during the main shul’s fast-paced Hebrew-only service. Inspired by childhood memories of his own junior minyan, Duchman gathered a group of eager youth and formed Kol Yakov Yehuda, known to the community as “the shul for the kids, by the kids.”
While many larger synagogues throughout the city feature their own juniorcongregations, it can be unusual to find one as organized and developed as Kol Yakov Yehuda.But beyond their impressive minicongregation, the group is setting an example for all minyanim this weekend with a unique bar mitzvah celebration for Yaakov Rotenberg, who was diagnosed with autism. And while the disorder can often make socialization difficult, Yaakov is learning prayers from his peers, in addition to studying Torah at home with his father.
A Torah has been written in Yaakov’s honor and will be completed and dedicated to the congregation on Sunday, Jan. 13. An afternoon march from the Rotenberg home will take congregants north on La Brea Avenue to Kol Yakov Yehuda, where the Torah will be placed in its new home.
The Torah dedication ceremony will also serve as Yaakov’s official bar mitzvah, and the Sefer Torah will be the first fully owned by the youth congregation.
Stressing the importance of Torah in Jewish life, Rabbi Daniel Rotenberg, Yaakov’s father and a Torah studies teacher at Yavneh Hebrew Academy, explained that Yaakov “can still achieve the merit of learning Torah each time his Torah is read.”
Yaakov, the youngest of eight children, attends John Burroughs Middle School, where he receives a secular education that caters to his specific developmental needs, according to Rotenberg. However, Rotenberg said “it’s missing the Jewish experience.”
Although Yaakov is also a part of Chabad’s Friendship Circle, a Jewish program that matches special-needs children with typical students, Rotenberg said he still would like to see more of a religious experience for his son, especially for his bar mitzvah.
Because the new Torah cost about $30,000, family members and children of Kol Yakov Yehuda canvassed the city for donations, which range anywhere from a single letter inscription of $18 to whole sefer (single book) inscription of $7,500.
Duchman explained, “It is indeed our honor to have Yaakov have his bar mitzvah at our shul…. The foundation of our mission statement is that the shul should be for the kids by the kids.”
“Reaching out to special-needs children is a huge mitzvah,” said Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, who added that a successful youth congregation can play a powerful role in developing synagogue skills.
Since its founding, the junior minyan has moved to a large room inside Congregation Levi Yiztchok equipped with an Aron Kodesh, bimah, plenty of seating and even a mechitzah to divide the boys and girls. Kol Yakov Yehuda even has its own junior minyan for even younger children.
As a way to keep the kids interested and connected, the junior shul also has social events like bowling and Purim extravaganzas. But the greatest motivation for the junior minyan is the annual grand prize raffle of a trip to a foreign destination, financed by the parents of the Kol Yakov Yehuda members. Last year, Duchman, his son and a lucky junior congregant traveled to France. The next winner will go to China.
“If I had the time, I’d make this my full-time job,” said Duchman, CEO and president of Nonie of Beverly Hills, a natural skin care provider. He added, “My goal is to create a whole shul completely for children.”
Duchman explained that their Kol Yakov Yehuda experience is mostly likely the first time many of these kids ever lead a full service by themselves. With the addition of its own Torah, the congregation will be one step closer to reaching Duchman’s dream of becoming an actual synagogue, as well as a stepping stone on the path to yeshiva.
“When the older kids come back from their yeshivas for vacation, they always come to Kol Yakov Yehuda to daven…. We’ve changed everything about children looking forward to shul,” he said.