The Human Spirit: Redemption

Like the Syrian Greeks, the Communists suspended Jewish ritual and many firstborns have not been redeemed

Hanukka highlights the possibility of inspired leadership by our priestly class. The kohanim of the heroic Maccabee family led the rebellion against the Syrian-Greek rulers who had banned circumcision, introduced the statue of Zeus into the Temple and forced Jews to eat pork. The Temple and the leadership were cleansed and Shimon, the only surviving son of Mattiyahu the Maccabee, became the high priest and leader of the Jewish people. Modern kohanim - or priests - have limited privileges compared to their esteemed ancestors. Nonetheless, shortly before Hanukka, I find myself in a school cafeteria decorated with posters of almond trees and dates, fragrant with roasted chicken and potatoes, attending an unusual ceremony conducted by a kohen. Specifically, the kohen is Rabbi Simcha Kook, the chief rabbi of Rehovot and a member of one of Israel's most distinguished rabbinical families. He's come to Boys Town, an Orthodox residential high school in Jerusalem, to redeem half a dozen teenagers who have recently arrived from Russia. The Jerusalem Boys Town is unrelated to the eponymous American institution known for its famous maxim, "he ain't heavy, he's my brother," and run by Irish-born Father Edward Flanagan. Jerusalem Boys Town is also devoted to child rescue, founded in 1949 by Brooklyn-born Rabbi Alexander Linchner who after the Holocaust devoted his life to building a school for immigrant children. Sitting amidst teachers, former students and guests at long tables laden with food are six neatly dressed Boys Town students. In what sense do they need redemption? Russian families tend to be small. Each of the boys is the firstborn and in many cases the only child in his family. Although their mothers are all Jewish, few of the boys realized they were Jewish until recently. None of them had a pidyon haben ceremony. The idea behind pidyon haben is to free a family of the obligation of its firstborn to service in the Temple. Because Jewish children were saved when the Egyptian firstborns died in the 10th plague in Egypt, all Jewish firstborns, not only kohanim, were originally consecrated to priestly duties. But ever since the sin of the Golden Calf, some 3,300 years ago, only the kohanim, descendents of the tribe of Levi, are so privileged. Nonetheless, despite the absence of the Temple, because of the initial obligation the families of firstborns need to provide the redemptive value of five silver coins to the kohanim. THE DEBT comes due after a child's first 30 days. Hence, until two weeks ago, my personal experiences of this usually light-hearted ceremony included the presence of a cuddly 31-day-old infant. But because like the Syrian Greeks, the Communists suspended Jewish ritual, many firstborns have not been redeemed. When the walls of the Soviet Empire fell, Rabbi Kook traveled to Odessa to renew this tradition by redeeming toddlers to septuagenarians. At Boys Town, six candidates for redemption have been identified among the participants in the Naaleh Ohr Dessa program which provides schooling and year-round accommodations for Russian students who come to Israel without their parents. Rabbi David Ben-Zimra, a sabra from an Algerian home who learned Russian for this purpose, travels to Jewish centers to seek out Jewish children. Nearly all the boys come from challenged home environments: many from single-parent families, teenaged mothers, some abandoned, parents sickly or jailed, in orphanages or living on crime-filled streets. The 200 students who have come to Boys Town over the past five years have come from Odessa, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Munkatch, Kharkov and even the emigre communities in Germany. "There is no shortage of darkness," says Rabbi Ben-Zimra. Darkness seems far away in this bright dining room. Unlike 31-day-old infants, the teens will have to redeem themselves. One by one they are called up in front of the venerable rabbi. Their fingers grip shiny coins. Already speaking Hebrew they say, "I am the firstborn son of my mother, and God has commanded the redemption of the firstborn. My parents didn't know that they needed to redeem me, so I am obligated to redeem myself." They hand over their shining coins. Smiling, Rabbi Kook makes circles with them around the boys' heads. Then, one at a time, he puts his hands on the boys' heads and blesses them. "May the Lord bless you and keep you. May he cause His countenance to shine upon you and grant you peace … may he guard you from all evil and protect your soul." The room explodes in song and dance. The newly redeemed youngsters kick up their feet and join in. "Firstborns don't technically belong to themselves until they undergo this ceremony," says Rabbi Ben-Zimra. But the ceremony also dovetails with his educational approach. He believes that students have to "buy in" to the process of observing Jewish tradition for it to have lasting impact. No one coerces the boys to light Hanukka candles. "They decide if they want to do it themselves," says Rabbi Ben-Zimra. "Mostly they think it's fun and join in." Likewise, no one gifts them with tefillin. "If they decide to put on tefillin, they purchase a set themselves, at greatly reduced rates of course. They have to make these choices themselves." He doesn't underestimate the difficulties of leaving a homeland and adjusting to a country with different music, food, and language. Still, in five years of the program, nearly every graduate has remained in Israel. Amidst the celebration Rabbi Kook supplies a cautionary reminder that the Hanukka story with its threat to Judaism didn't take place in a far-flung Diaspora, but right here in Israel. Just being in Israel isn't enough. "Where are today's Maccabees?" he asks. Then he looks at the dancing students and their teachers. "You are today's Maccabees." The school photographer calls the boys to pose for photos. Oleg and David, two program graduates wearing IDF uniforms and kippot, have returned for the ceremony. They join the newcomers. All together, standing straight are eight redeemed young Jewish men - unique souls, like the candles of a living hanukkia. Just a small drama in a school cafeteria. But it reminds me that the Redemption of the Jewish people is far from over and needs all of our continuing efforts. Blessed be the lamplighters.