Yana and Volodya Berkovsky began thinking about their own son’s Bar Mitzvah when they first attended a Bar Mitzvah ceremony while visiting New York.
But the Moscow couple said they never imagined their son’s Bar Mitzvah would turn into the large-scale event they celebrated recently along with dozens of Russian Jewish families in a Moscow synagogue.
Earlier this month, Zinovy Berkovsky was among 52 boys from Moscow and other parts of Russia who celebrated at a Bar Mitzvah ceremony at Moscow’s Marina Roscha Synagogue.
“It is such a big holiday for us,” Yana Berkovsky said. “We surely didn’t expect it to be this way.”
The event is believed to be the largest such celebration ever held in the region.
More than a decade after the collapse of communism, traditional Jewish celebrations — including Bar and Bat Mitzvahs — are now taking place in many communities across the former Soviet Union.
Orthodox and liberal Jewish groups now offer Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies that are generally paid for by overseas donors.
But the number of Jews who celebrate the events remains low. In fact, many Jewish families are still unaware of these opportunities.
Rabbi Grigory Kotlyar, leader of the Reform movement in Russia, told JTA that his group conducted 15 individual Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies in Moscow during the past year.
The Union of Religious Organizations of Modern Judaism in Russia, the umbrella group for Reform Jewish groups, offers Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies — and conducts preparatory courses for them — for everyone between the age of 13 and 18.
The Federation of Jewish Communities of the Former Soviet Union is planning similar mass ceremonies in the 15 largest communities across the former Soviet Union. The group also plans to hold Bat Mitzvah events.
The Reform movement already has a Bar and Bat Mitzvah program running in more than 15 communities, where collective ceremonies for a dozen kids each are held once a year.
Most Jews are not affiliated with synagogues or other Jewish organizations, and the level of Jewish knowledge remains very low — among children as well as adults.
For the mass Bar Mitzvah, the Moscow Jewish Community Center, run by Chabad-Lubavitch, organized an intensive effort to offer Russian Jewish families the option of celebrating Judaism’s rite of passage.
“My mom got a letter in the mail from the synagogue,” Zhenya Lyuvarov, one of the Bar Mitzvah boys said at the ceremony. “She liked the idea and now I’m glad she did.”
Added Michoel Mishulovin, a Lubavitch rabbi in charge of the project: “We offered the Jewish families to give their kids this once-in-a-lifetime chance.”
Because this was a mass ceremony, the kids who were selected for the event did not give individual speeches. Instead, two of the 52 spoke about the meaning of the event in front of the dozens of guests who packed the big hall of the Marina Roscha Synagogue.
The synagogue was festooned with blue and white balloons. Guests were treated to Jewish music provided by the community center’s band — and to a dinner that concluded with a huge cake baked in the shape of figures “1” and “3” and the words “mazal tov.”
Seating for boys was arranged in three ascending rows on a podium at the synagogue’s eastern wall. The boys sported dark blue yarmulke and white shirts, some with bow ties. Some looked bewildered by the attention they received.
“Most of these kids are not at Jewish schools,” said Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities, an umbrella group closely associated with Chabad.
“So this is indeed their first exposure to Jewish tradition, and the first time they are connected to the Jewish community”
He added that most of the kids in the group did not have a brit milah, or circumcision.
For three months before the recent Moscow Bar Mitzvah, the kids took a special course on Judaism.
On the eve of the ceremony, the group was taken to a retreat outside of Moscow for their first-ever Shabbat experience.
“Every second was a surprise for them,” Mishulovin said. “They kept asking what is this, why we do that?”
Zhenya Lyuvarov, small and shy, said the most surprising for him while observing Shabbat was that “we couldn’t turn on the light.”
When the speeches of congratulations were over, some of the honorary guests and rabbis — including Berel Lazar, one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, lit 13 candles in honor of the Bar Mitzvah boys.
The boys each received a pair of tefillin, or phylacteries, from Nathan Jacobson, a Canadian businessman who sponsored the event.
Jacobson told the boys he is still using tefillin his grandfather received for his Bar Mitzvah 113 years ago in Russia.
Sasha Nazarov said he had only recently learned how to use tefillin and had already put them on twice.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.