Making a meaningful connection

Ethiopian olim celebrate their bar/bat-mitzvas with their British 'twins.'

ethip 88 metro ta (photo credit: )
ethip 88 metro ta
(photo credit: )
A bar-mitzva or bat-mitzva celebration is always a cause for excitement. Last week, 35 young Ethiopian olim from the Tzahal absorption center in Safed celebrated their milestone year in a new country just days after finding themselves on the front line as Katyusha missiles rained down on Safed and the surrounding area. The young olim recently concluded a special program preparing them for their bar/bat-mitzva year. Now in its eighth year, the program includes weekly classes at the Tzahal absorption center, focusing on Jewish identity, the connection to Israel and the transition to adulthood, supplemented by mentoring, local trips and a structured Shabbat experience at the Livnot U'lihebanot campus in Safed's Old City facing the majestic Mount Meron. Rabbi Micha Peled and other educators introduce the basics of Judaism in sessions that involve hands-on activities. The boys learn about tzitzit and donning tefillin, while the girls learn from Rav Micha's wife, Bracha, about the importance of hallah, how to bake bread and create candlesticks. The United Jewish Israel Appeal of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UJIA), in partnership with the Jewish Agency, Partnership 2000, the Federation of Zionist Youth (FZY) and Livnot U'lehibanot, fund the project. The program's core funding was raised through joint efforts of UJIA donors led by Larry and Michelle Gould in northern England, and Karen and Peter Goodkind in London, together with initiatives by the FZY. An innovative element of the bar/bat-mitzva program is the twinning of the Ethiopian-born youngsters with their British counterparts. Bar/bat-mitzva "twins" are encouraged to correspond with each other via e-mail (through an interpreter) and have formed friendships. The British youths have learned about the Ethiopian community's history, culture and challenges. Twelve British bar/bat-mitzva youths are twinned with Ethiopian immigrants this year. Some have visited Safed during the year and met their twins. David Tuck of Manchester came in the winter and immediately clicked with his twin, Behrun Alahin. David's mother, Jo, called the meeting between the families "a highlight of our trip." The Tucks returned last week for the celebration with two bat-mitzva twins. Sonya Vinn of Birmingham also came to celebrate with her granddaughter Chloe Adelstone of Manchester, who is twinned with Gunt Malda. "It was a bit worrying to bring children to a country at war, but where we are located the war is felt only when we watch the news," said Ms. Vinn. Despite the emergency situation, not one of the 50 British visitors canceled their visit to Israel. FZY teenagers who are in Israel for their one-month Israel summer tour helped out with the children and participated in the celebration. Colette Murray, 16, of London plans to return home and share her experiences in Israel with her friends. "It was special to watch children who come from underprivileged families for a ceremony that they deserve so much," she said. The children traveled to the Jerusalem area last week for a three-day camp planned months in advance, long before the turn of events. At the Ben-Shemen forest, FZY members prepared a program of activities and constructed a network of ropes for adventure games. "Everything was aimed at creating interpersonal bonds between the olim and FZY chevra," noted Sefton Bergson, representative of the UJIA Partnership 2000 Confrontation Line-UK. "Each FZY member became a big brother or sister to one of the olim. The smiles on the children's faces said everything." The British made sure they were outfitted from head to toe in honor of Thursday's celebration at Jerusalem's Yeshurun Synagogue. They provided each boy with a tallis and tefillin, and each girl with candlesticks and a pendant with a Magen David. Last Wednesday evening, the children met and danced with the British visitors at the Western Wall. In the synagogue, the boys laid tefillin. The girls then gracefully entered as the cantor chanted "Woman of Valor." Ethiopian fathers were called up to the Torah together and recited the blessings emotionally. The boys were then called up to recite the blessings. Israel's Chief Rabbi, Yona Metzger, referred in his address to the miracles of the relatively few injuries and deaths, considering so much shelling. He related how he saw the damage at Safed's Rabbinical Court in the chamber of the judges and courtrooms. A Katyusha had struck on a Friday night but miraculously did not fall on the nearby synagogue packed with people ushering in Shabbat. He thanked the visitors and expressed the hope that the children would appreciate the holiness of both Safed and Jerusalem. The celebrants held a festive banquet at the nearby Great Synagogue, followed by a salutation ceremony of the FZY. "Life goes on, despite the hard times," commented Yonatan Freedman, director of the Tzahal absorption center, one of three Jewish Agency absorption centers in the region. "The staff and I are working around the clock to ensure that the needs of the immigrants are met in bomb shelters," he added. UJIA Chief Executive Douglas Krikler stated, "The British Jewish community and the UJIA stand firmly by the people of Israel at this challenging time. It is critical that we demonstrate our firm support and partnership for our Israeli brethren at this time. This is why we are committed to continuing with these bar/bat-mitzva celebrations as a symbol of the British Jewish community's solidarity with the people of Israel."