(photo credit: )
"For me, this visit has been the highpoint of Max's Bar Mitzvah trip to Israel," said Tom Bernstein, Max's grandfather, who, together with his family, was in Israel to celebrate Max's Bar Mitzvah. The Bernstein Family of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania are long-time KKL-JNF supporters, so it was only natural that they should commemorate the happy occasion at the KKL-JNF Recognition site in American Independence Park in the Judean Mountains.
Amy and Michael Bernstein, Max's parents, and Max's siblings, Sammy, A.J. and Charly, were greeted at the site by Mr. Yigal Yardeni, former KKL-JNF emissary to Canada and England, along with the rest of the family and guests: "It is an honor to welcome you here. American Independence Park, which is about 7,500 acres big, was established in honor of the 200th anniversary of the United States. Like all KKL-JNF sites, it is open to the public - it doesn't cost a penny to enjoy its many attractions, which include forests, playgrounds, hiking and biking trails, and many other recreational sites. We are able not to charge an entrance fee thanks to the support of people like yourselves all over the world, for which we are very grateful."
Mr. Yardeni presented young and old with KKL-JNF hats, pins and maps of Israel highlighting KKL-JNF sites. He also gave Tom and Keren Bernstein, Max's grandparents, a beautiful album entitled To Be a Free People, "in appreciation of your longtime support of Israel and KKL-JNF. We wish you long life and health together with your children and grandchildren." Michael and Amy Bernstein, Max's parents, were given a book on the Bible, "something you can read together with the children, our way of saying thank you."
Tom and Keren unveiled a plaque commemorating the memory of their daughter Marci, who passed away when she was twelve. This was a very moving moment for everyone. Tom spoke: "It has been 36 years that Marci is not with us. We remember her always and honor her memory here in Israel at this very special time, Max's Bar Mitzvah. Thank you all for being here with us."
The group proceeded to unveil another plaque, this one in memory of Gilbert Bernstein, Tom's father, and Leah Grobstein, Keren's grandmother. Keren told us a bit about her family's connection to KKL-JNF: "I was recently going through my grandfather's papers, and I found a certificate he received for buying land in Israel through KKL-JNF. Of course we had a Blue Box at home, and I always used to tease my grandmother about it. Whenever we visited, I would say, 'Bubbi, please give me the money you've been saving for me.' And when she asked, 'What money are you talking about?' I would answer, 'The money in the Blue Box with my name on it! I am Keren, after allâ€¦'
"As a child, I used to bring a dime to school every week. I would give it to my teacher, and she would give me paper branches to paste on a drawing of a tree. When I had brought eighteen dimes, for a grand total of $1.80, I knew that I had paid for a tree in Israel."
The last stop was where JNF America is sponsoring a new project, the B'nai Mitzvah Remembrance Wall, which is shaped like a Torah scroll. The inscription on the wall reads: "This wall links B'nai Mitzvah children of today with the 1.5 million children who perished in the Holocaust, continuing the circle of life. It is a testament to the will, faith and fortitude of the Jewish people."
Max Bernstein, the Bar Mitzvah boy, chose to participate in this unique KKL-JNF project. With the help of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, KKL-JNF identified the name of a boy who was born at the same time Max was - Sandor Schwartz of Budapest, Hungary, who had been murdered in Auschwitz not long after his Bar Mitzvah. On their way to Independence Park, the Bernstein family stopped at Yad Vashem to read Sandor's Testimony Page.
Yoav Gal, general manager of "Israel My Way" customized tours, who was accompanying the family on their visit to Israel, announced that we had some very special guests: "I was busy at my computer last night, and I discovered that Sandor had a sister, who lives in Canada. I found her phone number and called her to tell her that her brother was being remembered by a young man named Max Bernstein. She was very, very touched, and she told me that she has a daughter in Israel by the name of Shoshi Zukor-Schreter, who lives in Rana'na. And here she is, together with her husband Shelly. They came here especially in honor of the occasion."
Max's father, Michael, unveiled the plaque together with Shoshi, and then Shoshi addressed the group: "Max, it is difficult for me to convey to you how pleased we are to share in your Bar Mitzva celebration.Â Although we have never met until this moment, I know that you come from a very special family.Â Your parents have made the effort to travel with you from Pittsburgh to Jerusalem to commemorate this milestone.Â This speaks to their love of you, of Israel and the Jewish people.Â Coupled with this, you have done something truly outstanding.Â You have chosen to be twinned with a young man, your age, and with your exact birthday, who was taken from us in the Holocaust.Â That young man was my Mother's youngest brother, my Uncle Sandor Schwartz of Miskolc, Hungary.
"It may be many years before you will internalize what a huge gesture this is.Â My Uncle is, of course remembered by our family, but he never had a burial place, a gravestone or a history beyond age 13.Â This stroke of fate, whereby you chose to remember him, brings him back into our lives in a tangible way. My Mother and our entire family are so moved and grateful to know that his name will be immortalized by your most thoughtful gesture.
"It is particularly meaningful that we are currently celebrating the miracle of Chanuka, a story of victory of good over evil.Â The enormous generosity of spirit that you and your family have shown proves once again that good overcomes evil over the years.Â Although the Nazis took young Sandor's life, they could not obliterate his memory. You have rescued him from oblivion.Â On this second day of Chanuka, 2008, you have brought light into our lives. Mazal Tov!!"
Michael thanked Shoshi for her part in his family's simha: "My wife Amy and I are very, very moved. We wanted to bring Max to Israel for his Bar Mitzvah to strengthen his connection to his people. That is what we intended, and it has happened in the most powerful way."
It is difficult to convey the joy, sadness and sense of bonding that everyone experienced at that moment close to sunset in the Judean Mountains, a moment no one there will ever forget.
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