A quadruple celebration

It all began approximately a year ago, when the Schuster family, including parents Fred and Karen, began planning for Ilan’s bar mitzva.

The bar mitzva boy, Ilan Schuster of San Diego, puts on tefillin (photo credit: NITAI SHAANANI – ART PHOTOGRAPHY)
The bar mitzva boy, Ilan Schuster of San Diego, puts on tefillin
It’s not unusual for an American boy to have a bar mitzva in Israel. Nor is it unusual for an American boy to twin with an Israeli boy. For that matter, it’s not all that unusual for a Holocaust survivor who missed out on a bar mitzva to have one at an advanced age.
But when an American boy from San Diego invites an orphaned Israeli boy and a Holocaust survivor to join him in celebrating a joint bar mitzva at the Western Wall – and it also happens to be the survivor’s 75th birthday – it is unusual and makes for a quadruple celebration.
But it was more than that. It was also Rosh Hodesh, the beginning of a Hebrew calendar month, which is always special in Jewish tradition – and it was the first ever visit to Israel by the Holocaust survivor and his wife, who live in New York.
IT ALL began approximately a year ago, when the Schuster family, including parents Fred and Karen, began planning for Ilan’s bar mitzva.
There was never a doubt that Ilan would have his bar mitzva in Israel. For one thing, he’s named for the late Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, and his full name is Ilan Ramon Gavriel Schuster. For another, his two brothers, who came to Israel as lone soldiers, have made aliya. Zachary was a combat soldier in the Givati Brigade and is now studying business administration at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. Ari was a medic in the Kfir Brigade and is enrolled in a preparatory course at Bar-Ilan University; once he completes it, he will go on to do a paramedical course at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
The three boys were raised to do hands-on giving. Donating money was simply not enough. They had to be involved in whatever project they supported, and thus give of themselves.
When Ilan decided that he wanted to twin with an orphan, he was aware that the orphan would probably have a group bar mitzva with other youngsters living in the same facility.
“But I wanted him to feel special and have a bar mitzva with someone who loved him,” Ilan says.
David Buhbut, a smiling, well-mannered youngster, lives at the Emunah Sarah Herzog Children’s Center in Afula. His parents died in tragic circumstances, and the Emunah Center, which provides residential and daycare intervention programs along with therapeutic and educational services for some 200 children aged three to 18, was an ideal place for him to call home.
One of the activities for children living at the center is to find overseas pen pals so that they can have someone with whom to correspond and share their innermost thoughts, while simultaneously broadening their horizons. It didn’t take too long for Karen to “find” David.
Ilan and David began writing to each other and discovered that even though they had different lifestyles, they shared several likes and dislikes.
“He’s really natural. He loves sports, and so do I,” Ilan said following their joint ceremony last week.
In the course of exchanging e-mails with David, Ilan learned that while several of the children in David’s class had iPads, David didn’t, and an iPad was something he would really cherish.
With very little time at his disposal, Ilan launched a campaign on his Facebook page to buy an iPad, tennis shoes and a tennis racket “for David, my new friend in Israel.” He eventually raised enough money to also buy all the accessories that go with the iPad, and David, who received his gifts for Hanukka, was particularly thrilled with the earphones. But he was also pleased to be able to play games on the iPad and to send and receive videos.
THEN CAME Ilan’s next project.
His paternal grandfather, Morris Schuster, who was born in Dombrowitz, Poland, and died eight years ago, had been a Holocaust survivor, and the family was reasonably sure he’d never had a bar mitzva. To honor his memory and, in a sense, to close a circle, Ilan decided that he wanted to have a Holocaust survivor join in his ceremony. But it had to be one who never had a bar mitzva.
Again, Karen recruited herself for a search. She began to despair when one organization after another was unable to honor her request. Then she chanced upon The Blue Card, an organization established in Germany in 1934 to help Jews who had lost their livelihood through Nazi oppression and persecution.
In 1939, The Blue Card moved to the United States and began helping refugees who had moved there after fleeing the Nazis. After the war, it expanded its activities to help all Holocaust survivors, and not only those who came from Germany.
Solely devoted to helping Holocaust survivors living in the US, The Blue Card provides financial assistance on a monthly basis, and also caters to emergencies such as medical and dental care. It also arranges week-long vacations in rural settings, and provides precautionary health services that enable Holocaust survivors to live with dignity in their own homes.
After going through her files, Izabella, one of the people working at The Blue Card, came up with Gregory Huss, whose Polish parents had fled to Ukraine in 1939. Huss was born on July 7, 1941, a week after the Nazis occupied Ukraine.
He has no knowledge of what happened to his parents.
“They disappeared,” he said when interviewed last week. But apparently they found some good Ukrainian people to look after their son and later inform them of their names and the date of his birth. They hid him for three years in a number of hiding places, some of which were so stifling it’s a miracle he survived.
After the war, representatives of the Joint Distribution Committee and other Jewish organizations came looking for Jewish children who had been hidden from the Nazis. The Ukrainian authorities asked citizens who had given shelter to Jewish children to give them up for repatriation to Poland.
Huss was sent to a Jewish orphanage there, where he remained until he completed high school in 1957. During this time, he also studied at a drama studio.
Postwar Poland, however, was under Communist rule, and religious practices were discouraged by the authorities. Needless to say, none of the youngsters at the orphanage had a bar mitzva.
Huss remained in Poland until 1968, when, together with 30,000 other Polish Jews, he was expelled by the Gomulka regime. He went to Germany, where he stayed in a refugee camp and was subsequently able to migrate to the US with the help of HIAS.
In New York, he landed a job at Ratner’s, the famous Lower East Side kosher dairy restaurant whose regular clientele included the most famous of Jewish entertainers, as well as Jewish underworld figures. He subsequently worked as the head cashier of the original Copacabana night club, and fondly recalls the occasions when Frank Sinatra sang there.
He married and fathered a son, Martin, who is a social worker. (Following the death of his first wife, he married his present wife, Tatiana, in 1997. She also has a son.) He later suffered a heart attack and became unable to work. He also suffers from post traumatic stress syndrome.
After Karen “found” Huss, the family went to New York in November to meet him, and after a few awkward moments, there was an almost instant chemistry between him and Ilan. They quickly bonded. That first meeting was followed by others, plus an exchange of emails and postcards.
As soon as he returned home to San Diego, Ilan launched another Facebook campaign to help get Gregory and Tatiana to Israel. Some of the funds were, of course, supplied by relatives, but there were other people who were happy to be part of the project. Karen and Fred subsidized the remaining costs, and even paid for a small party at the Between the Arches restaurant near the Western Wall.
No one had ever told Huss that he could have a bar mitzva after the age of 13, and although he has documents to prove he is Jewish, it wasn’t until he came to Jerusalem and joined up with Ilan and David “that I felt 120% Jewish.”
A bar mitzva was something he wanted for a long time, but he had never even dared give expression to his desire.
“It’s the best holiday I ever had in my life. I feel as if I have a new family,” he says.
It’s “changed his life,” Tatiana says.
“It’s amazing. It’s like a dream come true. I always wanted to come here, and I dreamed to be here one day. I’m very excited. I was crying at the Wall,” she says.
“So was I,” says her husband.
David, the orphan, is rather on the quiet side, but always smiling. He had come to Jerusalem from Afula with a chaperon, and although this was not his first time in the city, it was the most exciting because it meant he could spend time with Ilan.
The two boys get along famously and have decided to join the same IDF unit so that they can watch each other’s back. Their closeness is even more remarkable given that Ilan doesn’t speak Hebrew and David doesn’t speak English.
“He’s like my brother,” David says.
Their correspondence has been helped along by Google Translate, which, although it occasionally makes mistakes, gets the main gist of their messages across.
Before they join the army, David, who has never been to the US, would like to visit.
“Maybe next year,” he says hopefully.
This could mean yet another fund-raising project for Ilan.
“I’m a hands-on guy,” he says as he contemplates the idea.
THE SCHUSTERS raised their children to be staunch Zionists and are proud of their commitment.
“Without the State of Israel, another Holocaust could happen,” Karen says. “If my children serve the greater cause, I turn my fear into pride for their bravery.”
Fred Schuster says that words cannot describe the pride he has in the boys.
“They’re truly amazing. They wanted to make a difference by giving of themselves,” he says.
At the end of the day, a satisfied Ilan says: “I did a mitzva for Greg and his wife, and for David – and that makes me happy.”