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Life has the right-of-way

Last Sept. 11, a Tampa boy's bar mitzvah was days away. A teaching from the Talmud helped him and his family decide to go ahead with their celebration.

By SHARON TUBBS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 9, 2002

Last Sept. 11, a Tampa boy's bar mitzvah was days away. A teaching from the Talmud helped him and his family decide to go ahead with their celebration.

TAMPA -- Josh Albert's dad frequently has a camera in his son's face, begging for a smile -- a slight curl of the lips would be nice -- but smiles don't come easily. Josh likes his poses straight-faced and serious. Despite a 4.0 grade point average, he'd rather call himself jock than genius.

Among the biggest disappointments of his life:

Not making the Bayshore Little League all-star team last year. Bummer. He tried to take it "like a man" but couldn't hold back the tears.

Hey, he's 13.

No wonder, then, that as he sat in Wilson Middle School last Sept. 11, watching TV clips of planes flying into the twin towers, it didn't initially dawn on him that the national tragedy might affect his bar mitzvah celebration, which was a few days away. It was Tuesday, and Josh was supposed to lead some prayers during services at the synagogue Friday evening. Then, on Saturday, he was to give a speech and gather with friends and family for another service and a luncheon at the Crowne Plaza in Tampa.

His parents picked him up early from school. The terrorist attacks could change things, his dad, Dan, told him. The nation was in crisis, and a celebration might not be appropriate. Besides, Dan Albert's relatives in New York and on the West Coast would not be able to come because of the attacks.

But Josh's mom, Debbie, had a different take on things. The bar mitzvah would be the first time Josh was allowed to read a portion of the Torah in the synagogue -- one of the benefits of a Jewish boy coming of age. She did not want the acts of terrorists to delay what was to be an important time in her son's spiritual life. Josh had studied hard and had known enough Hebrew to read the Torah since he was in the third grade. She believed the party should go on.

In many respects, Josh was still a boy, a seventh-grader who liked being with his friends. But in the midst of national turmoil, turning 13 would give him more responsibility and privileges afforded to adults. Besides reading the Torah, he would be responsible for fasting on Yom Kippur, like grownups. He could be counted in a Jewish minyan, the quorum needed to conduct a service.

To celebrate or not to celebrate? The Alberts consulted their rabbi at Congregation Schaarai Zedek, and he reminded them of something in the Talmud, a collection of writings of Jewish civil and religious law. If a hearse headed for a funeral meets a wedding party on the road, the wedding party has the right of way, the Talmud says.

"I started thinking about it, and I still wanted it to go on," Josh said. "Why am I going to let terrorists ruin it?"

On it went.

For his mitzvah project, which coincides with the celebration, Josh had planned an awareness campaign at Wilson. He had made posters and had students wear paper clips of different colors to protest hatred and highlight the need for tolerance. The activity was modeled after a project staged by Norwegians who protested Nazism during World War II.

Perhaps it was beshert -- fate -- that Josh's weeklong campaign began Sept. 10, the day before a national tragedy that led to discrimination against Muslims in the United States.

Josh said he has never been the target of anti-Semitic remarks at school, noting that he's bigger in size than some of his peers. But one of his friends was called "a stupid, dirty Jew."

With the bar mitzvah celebration days away, Josh sat down at his computer and made some changes to the 10-minute speech he was to give that weekend. He realized that his disappointment over not making the all-star team was minor in the scheme of things, he said. "Fortunately, I have avoided having to face the disappointment of severe discrimination, yet as the events of this past week have so vividly shown, hate is on the rise."

Tropical Storm Gabrielle complicated things further. The synagogue canceled service Friday night. The Alberts lost the power in their Davis Islands home in Tampa and booked a room at the Crowne Plaza.

Josh was ready but nervous at first on Saturday, until a joke from the rabbi loosened him up. After years of preparation in Hebrew school, Josh Albert read from the Torah. Afterward, he enjoyed the luncheon with about 175 guests. The theme was the All-American pastime, baseball. Josh and a group of his friends stayed at the hotel that night for a preplanned sleepover.

A year ago, during his hectic time of preparation, Josh didn't really grasp the significance of his rite of passage, he said. He turns 14 on Friday. And thinking back on it now, "yeah, it's a pretty big deal," he said. "I study my religion, and it means a lot to me."

- Sharon Tubbs covers religion for Floridian.

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