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Rabbi Stephen Weiss

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Madison Weiss, from left, Diane Weiss, David Weiss, Stephen Weiss, Ben Weiss

Senior Rabbi, B’nai Jeshurun Congregation

Aug. 31, 1974, a typical late-summer day in southern California, was a special day for Stephen Weiss, who turned 13 three weeks earlier. The boy awoke excited, thinking how in a few hours he would read Ki Teitzei, the Torah portion that deals with many forms of law.

That Saturday was Weiss’s bar mitzvah, a milestone the future rabbi had been preparing for assiduously. The only boy Rabbi Shimon Paskow bar mitzvahed that day at Temple Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks, Calif., Weiss was more than ready to go.

Thousand Oaks in suburban Los Angeles is adjacent to Simi Valley, where Weiss lived with his parents, a sister two years older and a brother three years younger.

“I was excited. I slept very badly,” says Weiss, now senior rabbi at B’nai Jeshurun Congregation in Pepper Pike. “I had good teachers, my father taught me Hebrew at home, and worked with me on my prayers and my Torah reading.”

Did all go well? “I think so,” Weiss says. “I did a lot. I read the whole Torah portion, chanted the whole service.”

Not only was he proud of his accomplishment in the Conservative synagogue – his bar mitzvah took some three hours – the event also shaped who he is today.

“I don’t know if I knew then what it would mean to me later in life,” he says. “I knew that I had really accomplished something significant, but I don’t think I understood then consciously the way that it shaped who I am, my Jewish commitment. My Jewish commitment grew out of that experience.”

Maybe 100 friends and family attended, a “pretty big gathering,” and there was a party afterward at a community clubhouse in Simi Valley. There were cold cuts, “a guy on a keyboard,” a swimming pool. The whole day rolled out easily, from reading Torah to poolside relaxation.

“I think everything went smoothly,” says Weiss, who doesn’t recall what kinds of congratulatory gifts he received. “I don’t remember any hitches.”

“It was a nice day. It was summer in Los Angeles; it’s always sunny. It was a typical dry, sunny day, so the pool felt really good.”

Apparently, Weiss was so eloquent a reader that he was asked to do Torah readings for Etz Chaim and his youth group. A year or two later, after his family had switched to another synagogue, he was asked to be a full-time Torah reader, an offer he declined. Later, however, he accepted a similar offer at a synagogue in West Los Angeles to which his parents had to drive him.

It seems the bonds Weiss forged at Etz Chaim, where he was close to Rabbi Shimon Paskow, and his relationship with his father, Ben, a religious man who started teaching the boy conversational Hebrew in fourth grade, stood him in good stead. (His father also brought him to synagogue every single Friday night and Saturday morning “without fail.”)

“It gave me certain skills that kind of propelled me into a deeper involvement with synagogue and a deeper relationship with Jewish life,” Weiss says. 

This article appeared in the Fall/Winter 2016 issue of  Bar•Bat Mitzvah.