On the 21st March 1987, I celebrated my Bar Mitzvah. It meant that in the eyes of the Jewish world, I was a man. Of course, the feeling of manliness didn’t extend to the home front, where I still had to clean my room, do the dishes and go to bed at 9pm.

But nevertheless, it was a special day. As I stood on the bimah of the Marais Road Synagogue in Sea Point, South Africa, a country that was not free itself, I recited my maftir and haftorah for the weekly portion of Parshat Parah. I had been practising for so many months, and now finding myself at this pivotal moment in life, I was focussing all my concentration skills on doing it and myself justice. It was a long portion, but time itself seemed to disappear as I sang those ancient words through my ancient soul.

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But there was something even more special that day. It wasn’t that the hired suit I was wearing made me look good. And it wasn’t that it was probably the first time in a year that I brushed my hair. It wasn’t even that that glint emanating from my braces made me look like a villain in a James Bond movie. Instead it was something deeper – because it wasn’t only my Bar mitzvah I was celebrating that warm autumn day.

Across the world at 3 Novomikhalkovsky proezd in Moscow, a boy my age, was also celebrating his Bar Mitzvah, but without the party and the fanfare and Torah laid out before him. That boy celebrating was Michael Rabinowitz and he was my Bar Mitzvah twin. And although I’ve never met him and don’t know where he is to this day or even if he knows that I exist, we still share a bond – a bond forged in time and in spirit across 10000 kilometres of the earth and 4000 years of history. But most importantly, it’s a bond forged from being a free people with a free soul, even though Michael, himself, was not free.

Because at that time Soviet Jewry was not free. They did not have the freedoms those of us in the West take for granted – and that included the ability to read Hebrew literature or to celebrate a Bar Mitzvah. Michael’s family had applied for an exit visa to leave Russia in 1979. It was not granted, and because of that his family were deemed refuseniks – those who became black marked by the Soviet Union. The consequence of that is that Michael’s dad lost his academic credentials and effectively lost his job, being demoted from a managerial position as a meteorologist to a simple engineer with his salary being cut three times in the process, leaving them in a difficult financial situation.

But alone and distressed as they might have felt, they were never truly alone, because the Jewish nation was standing with them. And perhaps that’s why Jews are a people that have lasted for so long - it’s the sense of community and the care they show to their fellow Jew wherever they may be – such as Ethiopia, Ukraine and the former Soviet Union. Despite the difficulty and the constant obstacles, Jewish organisations did their best to extend that freedom that I had to a fellow Jew in a non-free society. And their program of teaming up a Jewish boy in the Soviet Union to myself is what led to my connection to Michael.

As we approach Pesach, the festival of the Exodus – the day the Jewish people left Egypt and became a free people, it’s important to remember what freedom actually means – and how precious it truly is. We were slaves in Egypt once, and yet here I was celebrating the freedom granted to us 2500 years ago. I was celebrating it, and although Michael didn’t have that celebration, I like to think he celebrated with me.

When Moses led us out of the land of Egypt to become a free people, it wasn’t just the physical shackles that were broken, but also the ones in our souls. And from that day, and no matter how many times Jews were imprisoned physically, their souls always remained free. Free to dream of hope and redemption. Free to dream of safety and security. Free to dream of living as a free people in their own land.

On that day back in 1987, the Soviet Union, using all their resources, stopped Michael’s freedom physically. But no prison was strong enough to deny that freedom to his soul. They failed to stop him celebrating his Bar Mitzvah – because he did celebrate it - through me.

When I sang those holy words written thousands of years earlier, I was not singing alone. Michael was singing with me.
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