Just weeks after being forced to flee their homes in the town of Zhytomyr, Ukraine, a group of 13-year-old boys participated in an emotional bar mitzvah celebration at the Western Wall on Monday. The boys and their classmates, all of whom lived in an orphanage in the town near Kyiv, were part of an annual bar mitzvah ceremony for orphan boys made possible by the Colel Chabad social services organization in Israel.
The boys from Ukraine are among the more than 100 children who were evacuated to Israel and are currently living in the village of Nes Harim outside of Jerusalem. Organizers of the bar mitzvah say that while the children all live with the dream of returning to Ukraine as soon as possible, the ongoing war makes their future uncertain.
“Our goal with this event is to provide each and every boy here today, all of whom have experienced their own individual traumas, with the understanding that this special point in their lives has not been forgotten,” explains Rabbi Sholom Duchman, Director of Colel Chabad. “There is something incredibly rewarding to know that these boys whose lives were in complete turmoil amidst a brutal war just a few weeks ago are now blessed to celebrate their bar mitzvahs at this holiest and most special of places.”
The annual Colel Chabad event, held on the birthday of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, provides a complete bar mitzvah experience for boys who have lost a parent to disease, accidents, terror attacks or other disasters. The boys are presented with a brand new set of tefillin, gift certificates for new clothing, along with other gifts. At the Western Wall, they are danced down to the Wall where volunteers help them put on their new tefillin and celebrate their coming of age.
After the Kotel ceremony, the boys and their families were taken by bus to the Jerusalem Convention Center at Binyanei Hauma for a fully-catered celebration accompanied by musical entertainment and other surprises. The event was supported by the Meromim Foundation and the Goldman Family. A separate event was held for bat mitzvah girls last month.
Among the bar mitzvah boys who came from the Zhytomyr orphanage was Tima Kobakov who described in English how happy he was to be at the celebration and that he was appreciative of Israel for providing a home for him and his siblings in the face of the ongoing challenges in Ukraine. “I don’t know how to explain what I am feeling but I can only say I am very happy and this is a special day.”
Colel Chabad, founded in 1788, is the longest continuously-operating charitable organization in Israel and provides a network of support services for many different disadvantaged communities. Over the course of the war in Ukraine, the organization has intensified its efforts, particularly to support the influx of immigrants arriving in Israel.