Holocaust Survivors Come of Age With Belated Bat Mitzvah Celebration

Hillel Israel holds mass ceremony for women who never had the chance to mark the Jewish rite of passage, as part of the organization's own 13th anniversary celebrations.

Joel Newberger
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Joel Newberger

A dozen Jewish women marked the traditional rite of passage into adulthood together last week, but this mass Bat Mitzvah was unlike any conducted before.

The congregation that gathered at the Tel Aviv University ceremony was teeming with the children and grandchildren of these women, who, technically, had already entered adulthood more than six decades before.

Holocaust survivors celebrate Bat Mitzvah at Tel Aviv University on June 21, 2011.Credit: Joel Newberger

These women, who grew up in Europe during the Holocaust, never had the chance to celebrate their coming of age as Jews.

Ya'ara Salomon-Michaeli, the program director of Hillel Israel, decided the time had come to fix that, and organized a mass celebration to coincide with the Jewish campus organization's 13th anniversary "bat mitzvah" year in Tel Aviv.

Last Tuesday, Salomon-Michaeli stood smiling before more than 100 people gathered in the auditorium of Tel-Aviv Universitys Cymbalista synagogue, and told the dozen-or-so octogenarians: Dear women, it is your time now.

Each woman had studied a Torah portion and wrote a sermon to deliver at the ceremony, with the help of a number of students involved in Hillel at the university.

The women decided early on to study the portion that would have been theirs had the Holocaust not intervened.

It was very important to them, and thrilling for them, to match their sermons with their personal experiences, said Esther Abramowitz, Hillels Director for Student Life. When the women delivered their sermons at the ceremony, in front of friends and family, as much was clear. Many of them cried as they spoke, and much of the audience did, too.

Tzipora Feller, who spoke on the portion Lech Lecha, was born in Lodz, Poland, where she spent five years in the Ghetto. She was deported with her parents and four sisters to Auschwitz and later transferred to Theresienstadt; she was the only one in her family to survive.

Feller recalled the moment she and her mother were separated at Auschwitz and likened it to the Torah portion that would have been hers at her bat mitzvah: I ran after [my mother] and she pushed me back and told me to live and build a family. She compared this to "Lech Lecha", in which God commands Avraham to leave his home and begin anew in a foreign land. Like Avraham, she said, I built a family in Eretz Yisrael...and my family has grown and grown here.

The rows of wooden chairs in the large, dimly-lit auditorium—set across a gleaming lobby from the actual sanctuary--were filled with the families of the bat mitzvah women.

Indeed, this theme of family, both literally, and on a larger, Jewish-communal scale, was central to the event; bat mitzvah celebrations are traditionally family affairs, intergenerational coming-together celebrations.

The 45-minute ceremony was replete with the sermons of the bat-mitzvah women, as well as speeches by various Hillel executives, who used the opportunity to describe their own organization's feeling of success at having reached 13 years in Israel. This event was only one of many held this week to celebrate Hillels anniversary, including galas featuring singers Idan Raichel and Neshama Carlebach.

But Salomon-Michaeli emphasized that the Carrying the Torch bat mitzvah ceremony for these Holocaust survivors epitomized the organization's mission as it celebrated its 13th anniversary.

The ceremony was born out of a specific wish to give [the women] the opportunity to celebrate with their families and younger generations," she said, a wish bearing two objectives: "Embracing Holocaust survivors and reminding them we havent forgotten them and expos[ing] young adults to the beautiful and rich Jewish library of their heritage.

Nicole Walport, a law student who had helped the women prepare for the event, could not stop smiling as she watched the bat mitzvah unfold.

"To meet and know them, to cooperate with them, to be with them and learn from them--it was a wonderful learning experience," Walport said following the ceremony.

Working with the survivors had opened a door to Judaism for her, said Wolport, adding that for many years she had felt distant from this cultural heritage.

Ido, another student who volunteered to help the women prepare as part of Hillel's Respect and Remembrance program, said the experience was "inspiring" to him on a personal level in light of his upcoming wedding and the transition that meant for him as a Jew.

Rachel Edith Roth, the first of the bat mitzvah woman to speak at the ceremony, was equally as inspired by the turnout of so many young Jews.

How lovely it was to meet the youngsters, she said. And affirming that the days celebration was indeed an event to mark the unity of the Jewish people, she repeatedly referred to these young adults as her brothers and sisters.

The bat mizvah ceremony, she said, "proves we are one nation and that nobody can defeat us".

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