Global Jewish Reflections | In Siberia, Celebrating Miracles at a Group B’nei Mitzvah

When rabbinical student Joshua Jacobs traveled to Tomsk, Russia to lead JDC's Siberian bar/bat mitzvah program, he discovered miracles '... such as has never been or will ever be again.'

By Joshua Jacobs - Rabbinical Student | January 22, 2021

Joshua Jacobs, left, coordinated the 2018 JDC bar/bat mitzvah program in Tomsk, Russia with fellow rabbinical student Rachel Simmons.

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.

Rachel and I are standing in the middle of a big circle of about 50 Siberian Jews. We’re outside on a beautiful 70°F summer day in Tomsk, which makes this parka I packed ridiculous. But we’re two American rabbinical students leading a Jewish summer program in the middle of Russia, so what did we know? The Siberians are standing shoulder-to-shoulder, each carefully grabbing on to their own section of a completely unrolled sefer Torah. They hold it up proudly because it’s theirs. Today is their joint b’nai mitzvah — part of an annual program started by JDC Board Member Elaine Berke in 2005 that has reached hundreds of young Jews across Russia.

This week, we read parashat Bo, in which God, with the help of Moses and Aaron, carries out the last of the ten plagues against Egypt. The locusts, darkness, and slaying of the first born are described vividly and uniquely. The same phrase is used multiple times — namely, ‘… such as has never been or will ever be again’ (Exodus 11:6).

During the group b’nei mitzvah, young Siberian Jews (as well as their parents) stood under a tallit (prayer shawl).

I think it’s possible to describe the unspeakable horrors endured by Jews of the former Soviet Union like the pogroms, the Shoah, and the communist ban on religion in similar terms: a darkness, the likes of which has never been. But somehow, out of this darkness has come the inextinguishable light of modern Russian Jews of all ages who have jumped on planes, trains, and automobiles to stand together under a makeshift tallit-chuppah in Tomsk and pelt each other with candy after being called up for their aliyah. JDC’s Siberian bar/bat mitzvah program is a testament to the global Jewish community’s commitment to ensuring the likes of such darkness will ‘never be again.’

As the scroll is completely unrolled, and everyone holds up a section, Rachel and I give a brief summary of the entire Torah. We point out where one book ends and another begins. We call everyone’s attention to the Ten Commandments. But then something remarkable happened: I thought it might be interesting to show a portion of text that has very different and interesting spacing — the ‘Song of the Sea,’ where Miriam leads the children of Israel in song and dance after God splits the Sea of Reeds and guides the people through on foot. It’s that moment when all of the plagues of Egypt are behind them, and the children of Israel brazenly march forward to reclaim their Promised Land.

In an attempt to make this demonstration more personal, I ask the group: ‘Just a few days ago, when you each selected your own Hebrew name, did anyone happen to choose the name Miriam?’ I look around the circle, but I don’t see any takers. That is, until Rachel nudges me, her jaw-agape, as she points directly to a young woman holding up the ‘Song of the Sea’ in one hand, and raising the other.

Miracles happen when Jews around the globe stand shoulder-to-shoulder, recognizing a mutual responsibility for one another.

How is it possible that Miriam just happened to stand by the ‘Song of the Sea?’ When I asked her if she had chosen to stand there on purpose, she said ‘nyet,’ and the look of awe in her eyes only confirmed that the miracles we find in Bo still happen today. They happen when a group of people who have overcome impossible odds brazenly march forward to reclaim their Promised Land. They happen when Jews around the globe stand shoulder-to-shoulder, recognizing a mutual responsibility for one another. They happen when we band together and refuse to let the darkness of the past ever be seen again.

Participants at the 2018 Siberian bar/bat mitzvah program in Tomsk pose for a photo.

The JDC bar/bat mitzvah program changed me forever, and it’s safe to say that it changes everyone involved in it. Though the initiative gathers a group of Siberian Jews together each summer, I look back at my time there as an experience ‘… such as has never been or will ever be again.’ Never before have I been so warmly received as a Jewish educator by students so eager to learn. Marina, a young woman in her early twenties, once stayed late after a session. I told her class was dismissed and she could go if she wanted. She didn’t budge. Instead, she said in English: ‘You skipped two prayers.’ I explained that they didn’t have to know those prayers for their b’nai mitzvah; it was OK just to say the main ones we covered. ‘Oh,’ she said, not going anywhere. ‘Would it be OK if you taught me those two prayers?’

When participants were choosing their Hebrew names, I would sit with them and thumb through a large binder of names with their corresponding meanings, trying to help them discover one that resonated with who they were and what they valued. Except for Yaakov. I didn’t help him find that name. He came in knowing exactly what it would be.

I asked him why he chose that one, and this young Siberian Jew told me that he had visited Yad Vashem once, when he was 8 years old. He remembered walking through the children’s memorial, where photographs of children who perished are paired with a candle, symbolic of the soul’s eternal spark. As one walks through, a voice is heard, reading off the names of all these children and how old they were. He remembered hearing, ‘Yaakov, age eight.’ He explained to me that even though many years had passed since then, he had always felt a kinship to that boy. Years later, he wanted to formally carry on Yaakov’s name and legacy.

A young Siberian Jewish woman holds the braided havdalah candle at the 2018 bar/bat mitzvah program in Tomsk.

I think about my Siberian friends a lot. I think about Sasha Gutenberg, the camp director. I think about Polina, with whom I still speak on the phone. I think about all of them and about all of the participants from previous sessions I never met, and from future sessions I’ll never meet.

Some miracles never repeat. Bo teaches us that. But thanks to Elaine Berke and her family, JDC, and scores of inspiring Russian Jews, some miracles do.

Joshua Jacobs received his BA in Jewish Studies from Emory University. After two years of writing for television, Josh realized that every episode he wrote was a thinly veiled dvar Torah, which is why he now attends the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. After enrolling at Ziegler, Josh participated in JDC’s 2018 Siberian bar/bat mitzvah program in Tomsk as an educator and officiant. He is a graduate of the Jeremiah Fellowship through Bend the Arc, and of the Hartman Rabbinic fellowship. He is an active Wexner fellow and a rabbinic intern at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles.

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