Leon Asner never got to celebrate becoming a bar mitzvah when he was 13 years old. The Nazis and World War II made that impossible for the native of Belgium.

Now 85 and a retired tailor, he finally celebrated becoming a Jewish man during a special service Sunday, March 19, at the Marcus Hillel Center at Emory in front of nearly 100 people, most of them Emory students who did not know him until that afternoon.

“Today you have fulfilled the last commandment and have proven to everyone that it is never too late to be the person you want to be and to do the things that we think will make us complete,” said Anat Granath, who has worked with Asner for years through Jewish Family & Career Services’ Holocaust Survivor Services.

Leon Asner gets a kiss as well as a gift from DPhiE.

“You are an inspiration, not just to all those who witnessed you just now, but to all those who are fortunate enough to know you,” said Granath, who arranged for the bar mitzvah service after Asner approached her with the idea several months ago.

Rabbi Claudio Kaiser-Blueth presided over the ceremony, read Torah and guided Asner through the necessary blessings.

Emory students, including members of Sigma Delta Tau, Delta Phi Epsilon, Sigma Alpha Mu and Alpha Tau Omega, brought Asner gifts to celebrate his simcha, which naturally included lots of food and dancing.

Asner has the energy and humor of a man half his age, Granath said, and he has never let the lack of a ceremony stop him from leading a Jewish life.

Leon Asner and friends dance in celebration.

Asner did not talk about his Holocaust experience, which included his hiding from the Nazis and losing his parents, but he tearfully explained the miracle that led him to seek a bar mitzvah celebration.

One day at home he prayed to have a chance to go to Belgium to say Kaddish for his father. “A few days later, something happened while I was sleeping and I was awake,” he said. “A big, bright light came in through my window, through closed blinds. I thought the window was on fire, and I realized that was the light of G-d. I have seen the light of G-d, so help me, and things changed for me and I decided to have bar mitzvah. That is about all I can say. And it was a miracle, so I share that miracle with you.”

Photos by Michael Jacobs

Assisted by Hillels of Georgia Executive Director Rabbi Russ Shulkes, Rabbi Claudio Kaiser-Blueth blesses Leon Asner after the Torah ceremony.