Over 230 European youths and their counselors, mostly from Azerbaijan, Finland, Germany, Russia, Spain, France and Hungary, celebrated their bar and bat mitzvah in a magnificent ceremony held for them by the Morasha division of the Rabbinical Centre of Europe, which works to strengthen Jewish education in Europe. The ceremony was the culmination of an eight-day bar/bat mitzvah trip for the boys and girls, which was designed to introduce them to the Land of Israel. They learned and heard about in the various frameworks operated by the RCE together with the European Jewish Association.

The event was graced by the participation of the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef, who delivered the keynote address. “I was in Russia several years ago and there they arranged a meeting for me with the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin. I thought the meeting would last a few minutes and include only a few photographs, but I was surprised. The president sat with me for an hour and a quarter, and we spoke at length,” he related.

“I don’t speak Russian and he doesn’t speak Hebrew, so the Israeli ambassador to Russia was also present at the meeting, and he translated the conversation for both of us. I was surprised when the president explained to me what Greek culture is, what Egyptian culture is, and what Roman culture is. He elaborated about each of the cultures in detail. For a moment I thought I was in a history class, and I didn’t understand why he was expounding so much on this. Suddenly he turned to me in surprise and said: “Honored Rabbi, how do you explain that all the many cultures were wiped out while the culture of your people, the Jewish people, is still in existence?”

“As I was preparing to answer, he suddenly interrupted me and said that he would answer. He explained to me that the Jewish people survived thanks to the observance of the laws of the Torah. That is the reason the Jewish people exist. To hear such a great thing from a non-Jewish president is quite a big deal.

“Young men, thanks to the RCE organization, you were privileged to visit the Land of Israel, to pray at the remains of the Beit Hamikdash and to receive tefillin. Let us all be strengthened in keeping the holy Torah, which is the reason we are still alive.”

The first speech was delivered by the chairman of the World Zionist Organization, Yakov Haguel, who blessed the boys who had just begun to put on tefillin. He said that the tefillin symbolize the transition from childhood to adulthood in the Jewish nation, and the connection to the heritage of Israel.

Minister of Heritage Amichai Eliyahu, son of Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu of Tzfat, told the boys about the importance of the connection to Israeli tradition, which helps every Jew wherever he may be. “I was moved to see you wrap yourself in tallit and tefillin, which are signs of the connection between Israel and G-d,” he said.

Chairwoman of the Jewish National Fund, Mrs. Ifat Ovadia-Luski mentioned in her greetings how excited she felt when giving each girl a silver candlestick to light a holy Shabbat candle. “For me it was a moment of elevation; I felt on a high.”

Mayor of Jerusalem, Moshe Leon, praised the boys and the Chabad shluchim who accompanied them on the long and fascinating trip. He expressed the hope that when they run to their homelands, they will be loyal ambassadors of the Land of Israel and Jerusalem.

The event was also addressed by senior public figures, Minister of the Negev and Galilee Yitzchak Wasserlauf, and the Jerusalem city councilor and Chabad representative, deputy mayor Rabbi Yaakov Halperin, who was very instrumental in the success of the event.

The day started early, as the group arrived at the Western Wall Plaza with the heads of the Rabbinical Centre of Europe, Chairman Menachem Margolin, CEO Rabbi Arie Goldberg, Vice President Rabbi Yossi Bainhaker, and the various rabbis who accompanied them throughout the trip.

The boys entered the Western Wall area in a musical procession, escorted by a large crowd that enveloped them with love and joy. They were welcomed by the Rabbi of the Western Wall and the Holy Places, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz. Each of the boys then wrapped himself in a tallit and tefillin, which they received as a gift from businessman Rami Levy. The boys prayed, participated in Birkat Kohanim, and were called up to the Torah. There was a moving moment when a number off the people there spontaneously spread tallitot over the heads of the boys, and after the Birchot HaTorah, they asked the Kohanim who were there to bless the boys and to recite Hamalach Hagoel with them.

At the same time, the bat mitzvah girls who came with the delegation went to the Ezrat Nashim (women’s section) at the Western Wall, where they prayed. At the exit, each of the girls received a pure silver candlestick to light a holy Shabbat candle.

After finishing the prayer and a light breakfast, the youths, together with their chaperones from the Jewish communities in Europe and the heads of the RCE, took a tour of various sites in the Old City of Jerusalem and the Jewish Quarter until noon. Then they returned to the hotel to prepare for the bar/bat mitzvah celebration that took place at night in the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens.

The magnificent event was attended by rabbis, dignitaries, and representatives of the Jewish communities. They all thanked the RCE for the event, which is sure to remain etched in the hearts of the youths for a long time to come. In fact, some of the girls and boys spontaneously asked to speak and expressed heartfelt gratitude to the RCE for the entire trip.

Rabbi Menachem Margolin, chairman of the RCE and the European Jewish Association, said that the trip is an essential part of the RCE’s activities, as the organization works tirelessly to provide Jewish education in the communities in Europe, and to prevent assimilation.

Rabbi Arie Goldberg, RCE CEO, who accompanied the youth throughout their stay in Israel, said: “This is a very expensive trip, and requires a tremendous amount of responsibility. We acceded to the request of many rabbis throughout Europe who wanted to bring boys from the various countries and cities to participate in the powerful trip. I would like to thank the public relations company YPR, which belongs to my friend Reb Yosef Rosenbaum, and his amazing team, for the tremendous contribution to the success of the events. I would also like to thank Tzva’im Hafakot for producing the itinerary and the events, and for accompanying us through the trip.”

Rabbi Yossi Bainhaker, Vice President of the RCE, said: “This was a very logistically complex trip in which every detail needed to be calculated in advance. All the effort was worth it to see the youths excited about being able to visit the Land of Israel.”