Over one hundred Jewish boys and girls from Ukraine, Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, France, Russia and other European countries were treated to a week-long trip to Israel to celebrate their bar or bat mitzvah, and they visited many locations and holy sites throughout Israel. This is the ninth year that this special trip is taking place. An initiative of the Morashah division of the Rabbinical Centre of Europe, it is the climax of a three-month program teaching them about Judaism.

Representatives of the RCE in the Morashah division are active in Jewish communities, and especially in the smaller communities in eastern and western Europe, bolstering people’s Jewish identity through activities all year long, and especially during Jewish holiday seasons.

Its flagship project is the bar/bat mitzvah trip to Israel, which is the culmination of three months of study of important subjects related to Judaism. It is a week-long tour of Eretz Yisrael for the children and their chaperones. The RCE’s Rabbi Yosef Beinhaker, who organizes the project, related that in the first three days of the trip the children stayed in the north of the country, where they visited quite a few holy sites and even met with a sofer STa”M, who described to them the process of writing the parchments that are inserted into tefillin, and how the leather housings of tefillin are made.

The bar/bat mitzvah trip is arranged especially for children who had never before experienced a Shabbos, and who do not know what it is to live like a Jew throughout the week, since they don’t live in a Jewish environment. “The children are here in Eretz Yisrael to celebrate their reaching the age when they become obligated to observe the mitzvos,” said RCE director Rabbi Menachem Margolin. “This trip instills in their hearts a connection to Torah, to Eretz Yisrael and to Hakadosh Baruch Hu.”

Before this year’s trip to Israel, the boys and girls, with the guidance of their counselors, studied two booklets – “Sharsheres Hadoros” – which were prepared especially for them. Through these booklets they became familiar with the meaning of being Jewish, with the history of the Jewish nation and with its special identity. When they completed each chapter, the children were asked to summarize in their own words what they had learned.

These booklets, which were translated into the languages of the countries where these children live (English, Russian, French, German, Bulgarian, etc.), inspired a great deal of discussion between the children and their parents, and in many cases the parents also asked for the opportunity to learn about the Jewish nation and its history through these booklets.

Following the group-learning, which was very well-received, the RCE administration decided that during the children’s trip to Israel they would be given a “knowledge bee” on the material they had learned in the booklets. The test results demonstrated that the children had absorbed a great deal of knowledge and understanding of the information. The boy and girl who scored the highest after this comprehensive test were declared the winners.

The climax of the trip took place last Thursday, March 2. It began at the Kotel plaza in the morning, when the boys were given pairs of tefillin and the girls were given candlesticks for Shabbos candle-lighting. The RCE’s deputy director, Rabbi Aryeh Goldberg, gave out the pairs of tefillin. For many weeks Rabbi Goldberg had been working on all the details of the trip, together with Rav Eli Eidelkop of Brussels. After the tefillin and candlesticks were given out, the children were taken on a tour of holy sites in Yerushalayim.

That evening there was a bar/bat mitzvah party, directed by Rabbi Avraham Abba Turetsky of the RCE. Israel’s Minister of the Interior Rabbi Aryeh Deri was the first to give the children his warm blessings. He expressed his great excitement to be with these youths who dedicated months to learning the fundamental principles of Judaism and who have made the commitment to keep its mitzvos.

Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Harav Yitzchak Yosef, also spoke warmly to the bar/bat mitzvah celebrants and blessed them that their Judaism would illuminate their lives.

Afterwards, the Chief Rabbi and the Minister of the Interior were honored with handing out certificates to the youngsters who had excelled in their tests on Jewish knowledge. The boy who earned the most points, demonstrating an impressive fluency in the material, received a sterling silver Kiddush cup. The girl who demonstrated the most knowledge earned a sterling silver candlestick.

Also participating in the event were Harav Moshe Tuvia Weissberger, Av Beis Din of Budapest’s Adas Yerei’im community and member of the Council of European Rabbis; Yerushalayim’s deputy mayors Moshe Leon and Rabbi Yosef Deutch, and city council member Reb Yaakov Halperin, in addition to a number of Rabbanim and public figures.

On Shabbos, the bar/bat mitzvah celebrants were hosted in a Jerusalem hotel, together with members of the RCE, who davened the Shabbos tefillos with them and sang Shabbos niggunim with them between the seudos. The children spoke with great excitement about the Jewish Shabbos that they experienced in Eretz Yisrael.

On that Shabbos, four girls from the group – two girls from Germany and two girls from Hungary – surprised staff members of the RCE by requesting that their non-Jewish names be officially changed to the Jewish names “Yael” and “Yocheved.” They asked that a “Mi shebeirach” be made for them at the time of the Torah reading, using their new names. They added that they were going to ask their parents to call them only by their Hebrew names from then on.

On Motza’ei Shabbos the children were taken on a tour of the Kotel Tunnels. When they were standing near the place of the Kodesh Hakodashim, Rabbi Schneur Trebnik, Rav of the city of Ulm, Germany, asked them to commit to making a concrete change for the better in their lives, and afterwards to read Krias Shema together. The sound of the children calling out in unison, “Shema Yisrael,” struck an emotional chord in the hearts of everyone present.

To see a full gallery of pictures: http://drive.google.com/open?id=0B0DX4fhMrXC5akVNV21lU2NTbkE