For Kira and Dmitry, who emigrated from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, seeing their son Daniel and 17 other children from Russian-speaking families celebrate their bar or bat mitzvah this past year was not just a proud moment — it was also a historic one.
“If we had stayed in the former Soviet Union, I don’t know if this ceremony would have been possible for my son,” Kira says. “It definitely was not possible for my husband. I was very proud of Daniel and all his learning. This ceremony meant the world to me.”
Daniel’s bar mitzvah, held last winter at Ansche Chesed Synagogue on the Upper West Side, was part of the Family B’nai Mitzvah Journey, a program of the Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations, also known as COJECO, a core partner of UJA-Federation. UJA provided funding for the program, now starting its second year.
The Family B’nai Mitzvah Journey (b’nai mitzvah is the plural form of bar mitzvah) offers teens from Russian-speaking families a year-long educational experience. The program is designed to include parents as well, and provides educational sessions for the whole family, a mitzvah project, general b’nai mitzvah training, and culminates with a ceremony in New York. The program is followed by a family trip to Israel with a ceremony at the Southern Wall. Eighteen families participated last year in Family B’nai Mitzvah Journey and 14 families are enrolled this year.
In addition, one-on-one mentoring pairs families with Jewish educators who serve as role models for the teens. Often families become inspired to participate in the mentor’s organization or congregation.
The educational sessions, held one Sunday a month to explore Jewish history and culture, holidays, and traditions, were eye-opening for Daniel.
“I didn’t know much about the term tzedakah,” he says. “I was especially interested in learning about charity and giving back and the Jewish background for that.”
Daniel also enjoyed his mitzvah project, focused on helping the environment and cleaning up trash on Plumb Beach in Brooklyn. Other teens chose projects that reflected their personal interests – including challah baking and distribution, raising funds for cancer research, visiting elderly Jews, and volunteering at soup kitchens.
Start of a Meaningful Journey
“We hope that for the participating teens, parents, and siblings, our program is a jumpstart of a meaningful journey,” says Roman Shmulenson, COJECO’s CEO. “Many families are rediscovering their families’ Jewish traditions while others are creating their own.”
Shortly after the New York b’nai mitzvah ceremony, Daniel and his family traveled to Israel for a five-day trip with other families from the program.
Although he had visited Israel before, Daniel says this visit was special.
“At the New York ceremony I could celebrate with my grandma from Brooklyn. In Israel I could celebrate with my grandma and grandpa there.” Daniel adds, “And being in Israel this time I was able to have a better understanding of how Jewish history relates to me.”
While the year-long experience has ended for the family, Kira does not see this as the end of the journey.
“Now it’s about how to take this moment forward,” she says. “It’s up to my children to continue Jewish traditions and give back.” Kira pauses for a moment and says. “And it’s not just to continue what we have, but for our children to grow with new ideas and contribute to the community in many ways. That’s my ultimate wish.”