Bnei and Bnot Mitzvah and the Quest for Meaning

By Richelle Budd Caplan

Yad Vashem

As a mother, I know first-hand about the special bond between siblings. Although they are ultimately individuals with different personalities, they remain linked in a meaningful way that is often difficult to describe in words – especially when they have developed their own form of communication that others in their orbit are not privy to comprehend.

(Courtesy of Yad Vashem)

Developing meaningful links, whether between siblings or friends, is an important part of childhood and maturation. Over the years, a number of international barmitzvah programs have been initiated in an effort to cultivate meaningful connections among Jewish people. For instance, the well-known Jewish social action project in the 1970s and 1980s to bar/bat mitzvah with your “twin” in the Former Soviet Union. These twinning ceremonies at the time acknowledged that not all Jewish children were free to celebrate their coming of age and raised awareness about the “Jewish refuseniks” behind the Iron Curtain. Some of these Jewish youngsters even wore bracelets engraved with the names of the refuseniks who were in Soviet jails, such as Ida Nudel; Yuli Edelstein; Anatoly Sharansky (who we know as Natan Sharansky) and others. Following the massive exodus of Soviet Jewry approximately thirty years ago, breaking these bracelets had special meaning for those who had bonded with them on their respective wrists.

Yad Vashem has launched a unique twinning bar/bat mitzvah program that has been successful in providing scores of young people with a memorable experience by connecting with Jewish children who were unable to have a bar/bat mitzvah during the Holocaust. Although this twinning program has been successfully undertaken, some families have concerns.

Jalen Schlosberg receives a certificate from Cynthia Wroclawski, Manager of the Shoah Victims’ Names Recovery Project, during his Bar Mitzvah celebration, at the Synagogue in Yad Vashem Jerusalem (Courtesy of Yad Vashem)

Recently a Hebrew school teacher who attended a professional development seminar in Yad Vashem related that one of her pupils who was enrolled in this twinning program wanted to discontinue his participation because his parents were concerned that it was too depressing. In the eyes of his parents, their child’s time would be better spent playing sports. This example is not unique, unfortunately.

On the basis of recent surveys, a significant number of millennials and Gen Z are unable to name a single German Nazi concentration camp or ghetto. This lack of knowledge severs yet another bond between the Jewish people and the younger generations. Yet, despite this concern, and perhaps because of it, some Jewish parents still want their children around bar/bat mitzvah age to learn about the Holocaust.

So how can we convince families that the study of the Holocaust will not traumatize or depress their children? How do we encourage young adults that this subject matter can imbue their lives with meaning, especially by learning about the many stories of courage and sacrifice made by “their people” during the Holocaust?

(Courtesy of Yad Vashem)

Every generation has often modified celebrations of rites of passage in Jewish tradition depending on the circumstances of the given place and time – especially in periods of danger and persecution. Emphasizing how Jewish families sought to celebrate and observe Jewish rituals and holidays, despite great risk, can encourage young people to connect with their history. After all, many Jewish youngsters who lost their families and communities struggled to maintain traditional customs and never had a bar/bat mitzvah ceremony during the Holocaust. In the words of Itzhak Reznik, “My parents were religious, but by the time I turned thirteen, I didn’t know I was supposed to be celebrating. All I wanted to do was survive.”  The lack of food, religious articles, and places of worship made it extremely difficult to celebrate festivals and ceremonies.

(Courtesy of Yad Vashem)

For example, Tomi Reichental was born in 1935 in Piestany, Slovakia. He and his family were sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1944. On 18 December  1944, it was Tomi’s brother’s thirteenth birthday. Tomi remembers that “the small stove in the corner of the room had wood burning in it. Mysteriously, several potatoes appeared which were sliced and put on the stove to bake.” He recalls that a family friend entered the room, carrying a piece of black bread that had been cut in slices, spread with margarine and layered to resemble a cream cake. According to Tomi, their friend saved her rations for at least two days which meant that she went hungry to give some happiness to his family. He states that, “The gloom lifted and celebratory humor ensued with mazel tov wishes, embraces, kisses and well-wishing from friends. This is how my brother crossed from childhood to adulthood.” Tomi, along with his mother, aunt and brother, survived the Holocaust, and moved to Ireland after the war.

A Survivor’s Testimony. Tomi Reichental addressing students about the Holocaust.

Bilha Shefer was born in Germany in 1932, and after Kristallnacht or the Night of Broken Glass in 1938, escaped with her family to the Netherlands, where they were eventually deported to the Westerbork transit camp. From Westerbork, they were sent to Bergen-Belsen and eventually released via a one-time prisoner exchange in which Jews were exchanged for German Templers. 

Upon arriving in Bergen-Belsen, Bilha remembers that her mother gathered the family and pulled out a jar of strawberry jam that she liked. According to Bilha, everyone was surprised by this rare treasure. Bilha’s mother proudly proclaimed: “Mazal Tov – it’s your bat mitzvah, your birthday.”  Bilha’s mother had hidden the jar in her bag throughout their journey in order to celebrate Bilha’s bat mitzvah.

Yosef “Tommy” Lapid‘s bar mitzvah took place during the height of the Nazi occupation of Budapest.

Tommy recalls how a perfume bottle was broken to mark his bar mitzvah, thrown to the ground by his mother in an act of resistance, to preserve the integrity of her family: harkening back to a more refined past and to hold fast to the humanity that had been stripped away from them. Surviving the Shoah with his mother, Tommy would later, following a successful career in journalism, serve as Israel’s Minister of Justice and Deputy Prime Minister. His son, Yair Lapid is today Alternate Prime Minister of Israel and Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Tommy Lapid reporting from the trial of Adolph  Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961

Ultimately, most teenage Holocaust victims never had an opportunity to celebrate their bar/bat mitzvah. Some Holocaust survivors have had special bar mitzvah ceremonies in their golden years at the Western Wall or in neighborhood synagogues as part of their need to find closure and celebrate this rite of passage as part of their Jewish identity.

For example, Yaacov Wexler, a member of Yad Vashem’s staff, had his bar mitzvah in Yad Vashem’s synagogue. Wexler, a baby at the time that he was rescued by Polish Catholic parents, decided to return to the Jewish people over a decade ago and live in Israel. Wexler’s bar mitzvah was celebrated in the presence of another young Polish-Jewish boy who survived the Holocaust – Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Council. Bar/bat mitzvah children may be encouraged to learn about the story of Yaacov Wexler, a Holocaust survivor who decided to reconnect to his Jewish roots.

(Courtesy of Yad Vashem)

Robert Powell‘s mother escaped Nazi persecution in Europe, keeping her Jewish identity a secret to her US-born children. At the age of sixty-five, Robert decided to have a bar mitzvah ceremony after he discovered his family roots.  In Robert’s words, my ancestors had a “determination to keep alive our Jewish heritage. Our legacy. Our Jewishness. It only remains for me to honor them by living fully and openly…”

Bar/bat mitzvah programs can provide an opportunity to embark on a personal, meaningful journey. For instance, a few years ago, a Jewish family in the New York area turned to Yad Vashem to mark their daughter’s bat mitzvah by twinning with a Holocaust victim. The bat mitzvah girl requested to know more about her twin’s family. After examining the Pages of Testimony, the family asked Yad Vashem to connect them with the twin’s surviving relatives in Israel. As a result, the two families became close. Since the Israeli family had a son studying in the United States, the bat mitzvah girl invited him to attend her celebration. He did. Entering the event hall, he saw a beautifully framed certificate featuring his aunt’s name. In her speech, the bat mitzvah girl told her guests the story of her adopted twin, and how this Page of Testimony enhanced her bat mitzvah preparations. Through Yad Vashem’s twinning program, this Jewish American family not only fostered a connection with a Holocaust victim but also developed a direct relationship with an Israeli family.

(Courtesy of Yad Vashem)

Yad Vashem hopes that its twinning program will further encourage bar/bat mitzvah aged youths to learn more about the vibrant tapestry of Jewish life before the Holocaust and become inspired by Holocaust survivors’ stories of resilience. This educational process can have a positive impact on bar/bat mitzvah children who are building their “Jewish bedrock”, committing themselves to Jewish continuity and embarking on a life-long quest for meaning.

About the writer:

Richelle Budd Caplan

Living in Israel since 1993, Richelle Budd Caplan is Director of International Relations and Projects of the International School for Holocaust Studies of Yad Vashem. A graduate of Brandeis University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem with many articles on Holocaust education widely published, Caplan is an active member of the Israeli delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), and has developed Holocaust-related projects with numerous international organizations and institutions.

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

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