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MISSION VIEJO : 'Boy' of 85 Having Belated Bar Mitzvah

August 08, 1992|JODI WILGOREN

At the ripe old age of 85, Bernard Modelevsky officially becomes a man today. Modelevsky, whose bar mitzvah plans were put on hold 72 years ago when his family was forced into hiding during the Russian Revolution, will finally celebrate the religious rite that marks a Jewish male's passage into manhood.

After a lifetime of Jewish observance, the retired Placentia resident says that it's about time.

"When you're 13, that's the big day," the white-haired man said Friday. "When you're 85, you become 13 again."

According to Jewish law, children enter a covenant with God at age 13, promising to fulfill the Commandments. To mark the milestone, the honoree reads from the Torah, the scriptural scroll that is the focus of prayer. From then on, the person participates in services as a full-fledged adult.

"It's a great honor. It's a wonderful dream," Modelevsky said as he practiced his Torah at Heritage Pointe, a Jewish retirement community in Mission Viejo. "I lived for this."

Born in the Russian town of Zitomer, about 400 miles from Odessa, Modelevsky was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home. He studied in a cheder-- a one-room Hebrew school. He would practice what he learned in a makeshift synagogue in his grandfather's back yard. But when the time came for his bar mitzvah, religious persecution forced the Modelevskys to flee their home.

Modelevsky eventually settled in St. Paul, Minn., where he worked as a furniture upholsterer. During World War II, he served as a cook in the U.S. Navy.

Modelevsky, who attends services at Beth Emet in Anaheim, retired to Fullerton 17 years ago.

He can read and write Hebrew and has traveled to Israel seven times.

According to Rabbi David Jessel, who will preside at today's ceremony, more adults are having bar mitzvahs, either because they missed the chance during emigration or because they became observant later in life.

The celebration coincides with the dedication of Heritage Pointe's first Torah, which Modelevsky's son and daughter-in-law donated to the retirement home. The younger Modelevskys, who live in Fullerton, were among the founders of Heritage Pointe two years ago.

The Torah comes from Modelevsky's former synagogue in Minnesota. His sons, his father and his grandfather have all read from the same scroll.

In addition to the 160 residents of Heritage Pointe, family members from as far away as Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Oregon will attend the ceremony. At the afternoon service, Modelevsky will share with the congregation the five lessons he has learned from the Torah: love God, show respect for other people, discipline fairly, use common sense and emphasize togetherness.

"One of the greatest things is to be together with my children," said the grandfather of eight and great-grandfather of three. "It's the most wonderful thing you can have in your lifetime."

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