Press Releases

Russian Children and their Families Celebrate Bar and Bat Mitzvahs at American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) Program in Siberia’s “Sleeping Land”

Young Leaders Train Next Generation to Embrace their Lost Jewish Identity


Michael Geller / JDC Telephone: (212) 885-0838

For Immediate Release

As the tundra melts in Siberia this Summer, nearly 70 young people and their families from remote communities in Russia’s Far East will travel as long as 20 hours to Khabarovsk, Russia to reconnect with their lost Jewish heritage at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC)’s week-long Bar/Bat Mitzvah program. Held July 28-August 2, 2008, the celebration includes lectures, games, prayer study, discussions and—of course—a ceremony lead by eight young “madrichim,” or leaders from the region who have participated in past programs and Rabbinical students from the California-based American Jewish University (AJU). For the first time, the program invites families for the week-long celebration.

“The Bar/Bat Mitzvah Program exemplifies JDC’s ongoing commitment to providing opportunities for the Jews of Siberia to reconnect with their heritage. By engaging young people and their families, we are educating not only today’s community, but tomorrow’s leaders,” said Steve Schwager, Chief Executive Officer, JDC.

Elaine Berke, a long-time JDC Board member from Los Angeles, Ca. initiated the Bar/Bat Mitzvah program in 2005 after visiting the vast region, often known for its prison camps and which accounts for about 77‰ of Russia’s territory, but only 30‰ of its population. After learning that Jewish life flourished in the early 20th century and that Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremonies were then denied under communist rule, Berke began a special fundraising campaign to provide Bar/Bat Mitzvah education and celebrations to Russian individuals. The 2008 program now includes families and provides continuing education programs for past participants.

“By reaching children and their families, we have a greater chance at making a long-standing impact on rebuilding the Jewish community,” said Elaine Berke, JDC—Board Member. “Regardless of his or her age, every Jew should have at least the choice of a Jewish education and celebration—be it access to a Bar or Bat Mitzvah training or a Jewish wedding. We are very happy to be able to continue to provide this opportunity by working with JDC,” she said.

JDC re-entered Russia in 1988, where it found Jews struggling to reconnect with their Jewish heritage, but lacking even the most basic knowledge of Jewish culture, religion, history or community life. It has since developed a suite of renewal and education programs throughout the former Soviet Union designed to help Russia’s estimated 600,000 Jews create viable, self-sufficient Jewish communities. Following the 2008 Bar/Bat Mitzvah program, JDC will have enabled nearly 200 of Siberia’s youth to experience this important rite of passage.

“In 1917, the Russian Communist Revolution put an end to the country’s religious life. In 2008, JDC’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program will help reinvigorate the Jewish Community. We are thankful for generous donors who have made renewal programs like the Bar/Bat Mitzvah program possible,” said Schwager.

About JDC

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) is the world’s leading Jewish humanitarian assistance organization. JDC works in more than 70 countries and in Israel to alleviate hunger and hardship, rescue Jews in danger, create lasting connections to Jewish life, and provide immediate relief and long-term development support for victims of natural and man-made disasters.

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