'Tears to the heart'

Ukranian teen, grandfather celebrate 'redemption' as organization fills vacuum the rabbinate can't.

geyhman 298 88 (photo credit: Matthew Wagner)
geyhman 298 88
(photo credit: Matthew Wagner)
Arkadi Geyhman and his grandfather Yafim, new immigrants from Ukraine, each handed Mordechai Cohen five silver coins and watched as Cohen held the coins over their heads and redeemed them from God. "You are blessed Lord our God, Sovereign of the world, Who made us holy with His commandments and commanded us to redeem the firstborn," Yafim, 68, pronounced in shaky Hebrew from the transliterated page. Arkadi, 14, followed. "This instead of that, this in commutation for that and this in remission for that," recited Cohen, swapping the two firstborn for the coins. When it was over Elonora Geyhman, Yafim's daughter and Arkadi's mother, grabbed a guitar and began singing to God in her native language. "Give us strength, look after us, heal our sorrows," she sang. According to Jewish tradition every firstborn male belongs to God. He must be redeemed by making a symbolic payment to a kohen, a member of the priestly class who represents God in the ceremony. Normally, the ceremony, called pidyon ha-ben in Hebrew, is performed by the father when the firstborn is 31 days old. But Yafim's and Arkadi's redemption was delayed by anti-religious Soviet Russia. "I have tears in my heart," said Alonora when asked how she felt after the redeeming of her son and father. "We never had religious ceremonies back in Ukraine. So each and every one is special." Redeeming the firstborn is relatively rare (only some 7 percent of births need redeeming) since births by caesarean section or miscarriages that preceded a viable birth disqualify. First sons of Levites and kohens are also exempt. Alonora learned that her father and son must be redeemed during a training course provided by ITIM: The Jewish Life Information Center and sponsored by the Avi-Chai Foundation. "One day in class there was a lecture about redeeming the firstborn and I immediately thought of my son Arkadi," recalled Alonora. "Later it turned out my father needed to be redeemed also." Alonora is one of 15 Russian-speaking immigrants learning how to become what ITIM calls a "lifecycle facilitator." After their eight-month training course is over they will be expected to go back to their respective communities and teach and counsel about Jewish life cycle events, such as brit mila (circumcision), redeeming the firstborn and burial. Alonora and the others are also being trained to help immigrants manage when confronted with complicated bureaucracy at the rabbinate. The Geyhman family thought it would be fitting to celebrate the ceremony of the redemption of the firstborn in the ITIM classroom. It was a bit of hands-on training. Angela Levine, coordinator of the program, said the 15 - who were chosen from among over 70 applicants - were filling a vacuum created by an incompetent, often callous, rabbinate. Every Israeli is entitled to basic religious services free of charge. In principle, the rabbinate is responsible for making sure people like the Geyhman family know what the redeeming of the first born is and how to do it. It is also responsible for making it as easy and as efficient as possible to get married in accordance with Jewish law, to bury loved ones or arrange a brit mila. But, says Levine, many citizens do not know where to go to receive these services. And even if they do know where to go, language and cultural barriers coupled with the bureaucracy are sometimes insurmountable. "I hope, God willing, the rabbinate will start doing their work, show a little sensitivity and understand that people come from completely different backgrounds. "The main problem," Levine continued, "is that people feel estranged, alienated from the Jewish religion. I hope that someday in the rabbinate there will be people who will be able to help. "But in the meantime we are training people to present Judaism in a positive light." Rabbi David Banino, deputy marriage registrar in Jerusalem's Religious Council, the state's largest, admitted that ITIM is performing a service on a private, volunteer basis that should be provided by the rabbinate and the religious councils. "But we simply lack the budget, the manpower and the resources." Banino added that employees in the Jerusalem Religious Council, none of whom speaks Russian, have gone without pay for two months. For three years no one has received pension benefits or other amenities. The situation is worse in other councils. The 15 trainees will receive NIS 1,200 a month from ITIM and are expected to oversee at least four religious ceremonies a month. It could be helping a bar mitzva boy prepare a speech or aiding a couple register for marriage and prove they are Jewish. Most will work in local community centers. In addition to Alonora, who is a puppeteer, other participants in the course include a journalist, a stage actor, a social worker, a philosophy professor and a cultural mediator who helps immigrant families acclimate to Israeli culture. They come from all over the country and most are active in large Russian-speaking communities. None of the 15 has any special religious training besides the course and only three define themselves as Orthodox. But all have strong Jewish identity, said Levine. Alonora belongs to a Reform community of 100 members in Ashdod, the only Russian-speaking Reform community in the country. "Participants in the course are uniquely positioned to help make every religious ceremony a more personal, profound experience for the immigrant," said Levine. "Instead of having some rabbi come in from the outside and run the whole show, our goal is to empower the immigrants who are celebrating by encouraging them to prepare a speech or sing a song. To take an active part. "We do not try to coerce anybody, but if someone is interested in celebrating like a Jew, we are here for them."