Holocaust Stories Infuse B’nai Mitzvah Ceremonies with Meaning

This past month I filled out a form to choose a date for my son’s bar mitzvah. He is just shy of 10 years old, but truth be told I’ve already been thinking about how to infuse this right of passage with meaning. This past fall my parents took a trip to Israel. My father is ailing and with the ceremony three years away, I can only hope he’ll be around to receive an aliyah on the bimah and wish his grandson a heartfelt mazel tov. But no one knows what the future holds and that’s precisely why I asked my parents to purchase him a tallit (prayer shawl) on their trip. I wanted to ensure that there is some way for my father to partake in the bar mitzvah ceremony even if he physically can’t be there.

Besides having this tallit used in the ceremony, I am also thinking of other ways to make this ancient ceremony more relevant to our family. A large part of our family’s history is connected to the Holocaust. Both of my son’s maternal great-grandparents were Holocaust survivors. The Twin with a Survivor program courtesy of the White Plains-based Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center (HHREC) offers a profoundly meaningful option for children to learn about the Holocaust and have a personal connection to Holocaust survivors in their community.

Twin with a Survivor program

The Twin with a Survivor program has only been in existence for a year according to Millie Jasper, the executive director of the HHREC. As part of the program, students must have some prior knowledge of the Holocaust because the program is not intended to be an introduction to the Holocaust. The students meet with the survivor for a minimum of three times to interview them and learn about their personal story. Then they incorporate the survivor’s story into their D’var Torah speech.

“When a child participates in this program, they become witness to history. There is an urgency of time because this is the last generation that will meet the survivors,” explains Jasper. “The survivors impart important messages to the children such as not being a bystander, having tolerance and acceptance of others and not holding hate in your heart.” Many of the program participants invite the survivor to the ceremony to get an aliyah or to the reception for a candle lighting ceremony.

Twinning program in Israel

For families looking to traveling to Israel for a bar or bat mitzvah, Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, offers a Twinning Program. The popular program created in 2007 has approximately 500 participants annually. The bar or bat mitzvah child is given a special tour of the Center with their family and is given the name of a boy or girl who perished during the Holocaust. The Center offers on-site ceremonies and they often try to link the bar or bat mitzvah child with a child who had the same birthday or Hebrew name. “The program was created to give a meaningful responsibility to a child entering the Jewish nation as an adult. That responsibility is to make sure the memory of a child murdered in the Holocaust, remains alive,” notes Marisa Fine, a press representative for Yad Vashem.

Right now, our family is unsure of which route we will take to celebrate my son’s bar mitzvah. I’m leaning more toward a trip to Israel while my husband is more inclined to an elegant party, but no matter which option we ultimately choose, it is reassuring to know that we have options that honor our family’s heritage and keep the stories and memories of the Holocaust alive.

Stacey Pfeffer is a writer and editor based in Chappaqua.