Feature Stories

Birobidzhan Bar and Bat Mitzvahs Create Community and Leaders

About 5,000 miles east of Moscow, in a remote part of Siberia once designated by Joseph Stalin as a new home for Russia’s Jews, 29 young people celebrated their bar and bat mitzvahs last month during a JDC-supported family retreat.

The event, held in the small and historic city of Birobidzhan, was coordinated by JDC and made possible by the continued support and tireless efforts of JDC board member Elaine Berke.

The annual ceremony, held for the eighth time this summer, is “the central event in the life of the Jewish communities in Siberia and the Russian Far East,” says Boris Boguslavsky, director of JDC’s office in the region.

“Elaine had her bat mitzvah ceremony when she was 60 years old, showing that age can’t be an obstacle,” he says. “With constant support from family and friends, Mrs. Berke gives children a chance to feel what she was able to go through only at 60.”

Polina Katsman, who also took part in the bar/bat Mitzvah ceremony in 2008, returned to Birobidzhan this summer to help a new crop of young Jews.

“There is no exact age set for becoming an adult. The youth that came here are different – some are 12, some are 21,” she says. “I want to tell [participants] that there is a reason why you are feeling great excitement — it means that each one of you is coming closer to the ancient wisdom of the Torah and the Jewish people, and you recognize that.”

Boguslavsky said many former participants go on to become Jewish leaders in the region.

“An important factor is a link between generations,” he said. “The participants who had their bar/bat mitzvah in 2008 have become the madrichim (counselors) and the main driving force of the Jewish communities in the Far East.”

That’s true for Kirill Sakhmanov, who celebrated his bar mitzvah in Birobidzhan in 2008 and is now the Hillel director for Khabarovsk, a city of almost 600,000 in far eastern Russia, near its border with China.

“After the camp in 2008, I realized that I wanted to do something for the Jewish community in my city,” he said. “This project helped us create a group of active young people for whom working for the community isn’t something forced but something that becomes the work of their lives.”

Vadim Katsman, director of the Mizrakh Jewish community in Khabarovsk, said the continuing service fostered by Elaine Berke’s vision is what makes the Birobidzhan program so important.

“In this camp, we are building the future of our community. This is where young Jewish leaders are born that will lead the community tomorrow,” he says. “The fire that was lit during the ceremony does not go out but goes on to shine even brighter.”

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