After a week packed with events, tours and attractions, one hundred boys and girls from Russia, Ukraine, Italy, Germany, Hungary, France, and Spain returned home after traveling the length and breadth of Eretz Yisrael, where they were introduced to Jewish life and mitzvah observance. Some of these children come from families with no Jewish awareness whatsoever.
The RCE’s Morashah division works with Jewish communities in both Eastern and Western Europe, with a special focus on the small Jewish communities. Its goal is to give Jewish children a sense of their Jewish identity. These children have never experienced a Shabbos or even a weekday of Jewish life, as they do not reside in communities where there is a strong Jewish presence. Morashah is active throughout the year, especially during holiday seasons. Its flagship project is its bar/bat mitzvah trip to Israel, which culminates a three-month course on Judaism. The week-long trip includes tours and activities throughout Israel in which the boys and girls participate.
The highlight of the trip was the bar/bat mitzvah celebration at the Western Wall, where all the boys were given sets of tefillin, which they used for the first time at the Western Wall plaza, and each of the girls was given a beautiful candlestick especially made for lighting Shabbos candles. This is the ninth year for this bar/bat mitzvah project, which includes inspiring and fun educational and social activities.
During the week-long trip, the children visited holy sites throughout Israel. This was a unique opportunity to deepen their ties with Jewish tradition and with life in Israel. The youths were accompanied by the rabbis and rebbetzins from their respective communities, and each group was given a guide who spoke its native language. The entire trip was arranged by the Morashah division of the RCE, directed by Rabbi Yosef Beinhaker.
In addition to the tours and activities, the trip included many educational and social activities as well, for some of which the children were divided into smaller groups and for some everyone participated together. The entire program was planned with an emphasis on experiences that would leave impressions on the youths that would remain with them for the rest of their lives.
The RCE’s director, Rabbi Menachem Margolin, remarked that, “These children celebrated their entry into the Jewish world of mitzvah observance in Eretz Yisrael, and this trip in Eretz Yisrael instills in their hearts a bond to the Torah, to Eretz Yisrael, and to Hakadosh Baruch Hu.”
Deputy Director Rabbi Aryeh Goldberg commented, “The purpose of this trip is to connect these youngsters to Judaism and Jewish values, through building their connection to Eretz Yisrael and to Yerushalayim, and through their bar/bat mitzvah celebration at the Kotel. The effectiveness of this project will be proven through the youngsters’ continued relationships with the rabbis of their respective communities throughout the coming years.”
One very touching incident that took place during the trip involved a boy named Alexander Kreisberg, whose family lives in Offenbach, Germany. Three months ago, Alexander was not even aware that he was Jewish. When his mother heard from one of Alexander’s friends that the city’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Menachem Gurwitz, was about to take a group of 12- and 13-year-old boys and girls to Israel in order to celebrate their bar/bat mitzvah, she asked the rabbi if her son could join the group.
Rabbi Gurwitz, who had not known of this family until then, explained to her that the trip was exclusively for Jewish children. “But we are Jewish,” the woman protested. The rabbi asked if she could prove that, and within days she came back with the necessary documents. Further research revealed that the family was indeed Jewish.
But at that point there was another problem – registration for the upcoming trip had been closed a few days earlier, and no other children could join. Then, while Rabbi Gurwitz was explaining the issue to Mrs. Kreisberg, he was notified that one of the children who had registered had to cancel. “There is room for Alexander!” he told her happily.
Rabbi Gurwitz then asked when Alexander’s birthday was, and after comparing it to the Jewish calendar, he discovered that Alexander’s bar mitzvah would be on 27 Shevat – during the week when he would be in Israel. “We’ll celebrate his bar mitzvah in Israel!” he told the boy’s mother. She was thrilled. And indeed, on Monday, 27 Shevat, Alexander was called up to the Torah. When he pronounced the brachos, slowly and with great emotion, his fellow travelers and the RCE rabbis who were there all congratulated him.
The first three days of the trip were spent in Israel’s north. While visiting the ancient city of Katzrin, for example, the youngsters saw an olive press that had been in use during the era of the Talmud. The boys also met a sofer Sta”m, who demonstrated how tefillin are manufactured and how the parchments are written, while the girls were given an opportunity to perform the mitzvah of separating challah from bread dough. During the days that followed they visited an esrog orchard and a matzah factory in Kfar Chabad.
Among other exciting experiences, they were treated to a boat ride on the Kinneret, a desert trek in jeeps, and a visit to the Mini-Israel museum. They also climbed up to Masada, and they bathed in the Dead Sea.
But the high point of the trip was when all hundred boys and girls celebrated their bar/bat mitzvah in Yerushalayim. The twofold ceremony took place in the Cave of Zedekiah and at the Kotel, and was attended by Israel’s Chief Rabbis Yitzchak Yosef and David Lau, MP Yoav Ben Tzur of Shas, director general of Israel’s Ministry of Religious Services Oded Plus, deputy mayors of Yerushalayim Tzvika Cohen and Moshe Leon, and businessmen R’ Moti Sonnenfeld and Rami Levi. Chief Rabbi of Paris and member of the RCE presidium Rabbi Yirmiyahu Cohen, and the directors of the RCE, also attended.
During the ceremony in the Cave of Zedekiah, which was funded by the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage, headed by Minister Ze’ev Elkin, the dignitaries spoke and shared with the boys and girls their excitement over this event. Those attending were especially moved by the words of Motti Sonnenfeld, who told the assembly that his daughter Danieli, o.b.m., who was filled with love for all Jews, had also celebrated her bat mitzvah in Israel. When she was older, she volunteered at the oncology department of Schneider’s Children’s Hospital, until she was tragically killed in a fatal traffic accident, at the end of a day of volunteering at the hospital, when she was just 20 years old. In her memory, Mr. Sonnenfeld established the “Danieli Fund.”
Mr. Sonnenfeld related an incident that characterized Danieli in her short life. One day, she heard about a boy in the hospital’s oncology section who had recently immigrated to Israel from Russia, and who was all alone, with no family support. He had been diagnosed with cancer, and his chances of survival were slim. Despondent, he became severely depressed and refused to eat or to submit to treatments. Danieli befriended and encouraged the boy. She persuaded him to continue his treatments, to eat and to keep fighting to survive. From then on, the boy would wait for her visits, and only then would he eat. Eventually, he succumbed to his illness; he was buried in Beer Sheba. Danieli made it a point to travel to Beer Sheba periodically and to recite Tehillim by his grave, as she knew that he had no family members who might do this for him.
“This was my Danieli,” Mr. Sonnenfeld concluded. “She was full of chessed. And I call upon you to move forward in your lives seeking always to do good deeds and kind acts. But it is no less essential that you remember your connection to the Jewish nation in Israel – know that there is nothing more important than this. And when you return to your homes, continue Danieli’s legacy of kindness and Zionist pride.”
At the end of these very emotional events, the children and their parents thanked the RCE, under the leadership of by Rabbi Menachem Margolin and deputy director Rabbi Aryeh Goldberg, and staff members Rabbi Yossi Beinhaker and Rabbi Avraham Abba Turetsky, for all their hard work in making this memorable trip a reality. They also sent messages of special thanks to the trip’s sponsors – Mr. Alexander Moskowitz, the Meromim Foundation headed by Rabbi Ben Tzion Lipsker, the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage headed by Minister Ze’ev Elkin and his chief adviser Mrs. Moriah Chalamish, Mr. Rami Levi and Rabbi Maimon, Mr. Moti Sonnenfeld, and Israel’s Office for Public Relations headed by Yossi Rosenbaum. And they expressed warmest thanks to Rabbi Eliyahu Edelkopf, director of the Foundation for the Development of European Jewry, for his generous, ongoing support of Morashah and the Rabbinical Centre of Europe.