Coming of Age in Siberia

By Jacob Savage

Published July 15, 2005, issue of July 15, 2005.
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When Elaine Berke visited Khabarovsk, Siberia, last November with a mission organized by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, she asked a roomful of local Jewish students if they had had a bar or bat mitzvah. Only one raised his hand. The others said, sadly, that they were too old. Berke told them about her own bat mitzvah at age 60. “It’s never too late,” she reassured them.

Nine months later, with the support of the Joint’s Khabarovsk branch, Berke proved herself right: After raising $31,500, she succeeded in providing 61 Siberian Jews — ranging in age from 12 to over 20 — with a true bar/bat mitzvah experience.

On June 28, 40 boys and girls came to Khabarovsk from across the Far East. Twenty came from Birobidzhan, the Stalin-era Jewish autonomous republic, three hours away, while another 20 braved the overnight train from the Pacific port city of Vladivostok. Once in Khabarovsk, they met up with 21 members of the Khabarovsk Hillel, and together they began studying for their July 2 celebration. Though held in a Chabad synagogue, the ceremony was not conducted according to Chabad rules. As a result, boys and girls were both called to the Torah. However, in a nod to local custom, they sat separately.

Bradley Greenstein and David Kosack, fifth-year students at the Conservative rabbinical school of Los Angeles’s University of Judaism, led a four-day study retreat at which the children learned about their Judaism and practiced prayers and songs. They were “hungry to connect with Jewish life and traditions,” Berke said.

On the Friday night before the ceremony, more than 100 friends, family and community members joined the bar and bat mitzvah celebrants at their study center for a service ushering in the Sabbath. They then proceeded with dinner, dance and song. Several members of the community made speeches, and the children read from essays they had written about the bar mitzvah experience.

Over the course of the July 2 service, all 61 students were called to the Torah for an aliya, or recitation of blessings. The girls went first: Nine were called by name and recited the blessings they had studied. Then Kosack read from the Torah, after which the nine young women in the next group were called for their aliya. Finally it was the boys’ turn. And so it went for seven aliyot, until all 61 bar and bat mitzvahs were complete.

At the end of the service, the congregation cheered loudly, and the newly minted “men” and “women” sang a lively rendition of some of the Jewish songs they had learned. “The kids worked really hard. They were amazing,” Greenstein said. “It was a monumental event for them.”

After the ceremony, an elderly man who was celebrating his great-grandson’s bar mitzvah approached Berke. The man told her that he had been born and bar mitzvahed in Lithuania but his son and his grandson — who both grew up in Soviet Russia — never had the opportunity. He was overjoyed for his great-grandson. “We’ve restarted the tradition,” he said proudly.

Jacob Savage is entering his senior year at Princeton University. He is majoring in history with a certificate in creative writing.

Last week, the Forward began Human Rites, a new column devoted to chronicling ritual celebrations and commemorations. No less central to Jewish life than the calendar’s holidays, events such as weddings and bar mitzvahs offer a break from the everyday, a unique opportunity for reflection and communal expression. With this column, we hope to explore the full cycle of Jewish life — from the brit milah to the memorial service — and in the process get a glimpse into how Jews are leading their lives. If you would like to direct our attention to an upcoming occasion, please send us an e-mail at

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