Written by: The news reporter for the 'Yad Ezer l'Haver' foundation who joined the bus full of those celebrating a Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall and at the Knesset in Jerusalem.
The foundation led by its founder and CEO Mr. Shimon Sabag, who first came up with the idea, worked tirelessly for several months, initiated and carried out this most unusual and exciting event for the Holocaust survivors living in the 'Residential Home for Holocaust Survivors', which is in the suburb of…in Kasel Street in Haifa.
Dozens of Holocaust survivors celebrated this week on Monday 13.7.2015 belated Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in the presence of the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi David Lau, the Rabbi of the Western Wall, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, Knesset member Yair Lapid, along with other Knesset members and plenty of other guests. This colorful and unusual event was initiated and organized by the foundation 'Yad Ezer Lechaver' for the benefit of the survivors, who were denied such a celebration in their childhood because of the oppression of the Nazis at the time of the Holocaust.
The event began in the morning with an excursion that set out from the foundation's base in Kasel Street in Haifa. Among the Holocaust survivors 16 Bar Mitzvah 'boys' and 14 Bat Mitzvah 'girls', accompanied by dozens of other Holocaust survivors from the 'Warm Home for Holocaust Survivors' and from all over Israel who came especially for the event at the plaza of the Western Wall, the remnant of our temple. Already at the entrance to Jerusalem two cars from the Jerusalem police force were awaiting the arrival of the delegation of two full buses of those celebrating to lead them in ceremony to the site of the Kotel.
The buses arrived just meters from the stones of the Western Wall Plaza. There awaiting their arrival were Knesset member and former finance minister Yair Lapid, the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi David Lau, many public figures, Holocaust survivors from all over Israel, members of the Kotel Rebbe, and the Rabbi of the Kotel himself, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch; who led the Bar Mitzvah 'boys' and Bat Mitzvah 'girls' to the special ceremony. Those celebrating their Bar Mitzvah were awarded with ornate tefilin and talitot, and those celebrating their Bat Mitzvah were awarded with scarves and then accompanied to the ladies section of the Kotel, where they watched the Bar Mitzvah ceremony conducted by the two Rabbis. Yair Lapid, who was present throughout the entire event, was honored with the mitzvah of lifting the Sefer Torah. The staff of the Kotel Rebbe broke out into joyful song together with the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi David Lau. Next to the two Rabbis stood the spiritual leader of the foundation, Knesset member Yair Lapid, who has been supporting the foundation for years. As such for example, the main building of the foundation in the neighborhood of Hadar in Haifa, was named after his late father, Yosef (Tommy) Lapid.
The celebration reached its peak with the removal of the Sefer Torah and the Holocaust Survivors each being called up in turn to the Torah, as well as the laying of tefilin and the raising of the Sefer Torah to the sound of powerful singing by the survivors. Then the whole community that was present at the event threw sweets at them and tears of emotion overflowed along the Western Wall, and there wasn’t one person along the entire Kotel from among the hundreds who had congregated around the survivors who didn’t shed a tear. “I have already seen emotional events at the Kotel, and both light and darkness are present at this one, but the sense of hope is undeniable. And here there is tangible evidence for the real eternity of the Jewish People, it has been undoubtedly an extraordinary event”, said the Rabbi of the Kotel at the closing of the event.
Founder and CEO of the foundation Mr. Shimon Sabag, who awarded a talis, tefilin and a kippah to each Bar Mitzvah ‘boy’ (as is befitting to Bar Mitzvah boys), said at the start of the ceremony: “We have already done many events like this in the past, but this event has been the foundation’s biggest since its establishment approximately two decades ago. We have celebrated a Bar Mitzvah for the survivors because they deserve for this cycle to be completed”.
The only one as mentioned before, to make it all the way to the Kotel was Knesset member Yair Lapid, who arrived, took part and stayed for the entire ceremony, showing great respect for the event, respect to the Holocaust survivors and indeed to the whole assembly with his presence. One person particularly excited by the gesture was Ms. Chayah Caspi, 82 years old, who was celebrating her Bat Mitzvah 70 years late. “At the moment, I don’t have many words, because I’m so emotional. To hear Rabbi Lau bless us at the Western Wall was a very exciting moment, which is more than a wonderful memory for my life, and in the future for my children and grandchildren”. Caspi, born in Romania, made aliyah to Israel in 1948, when at the age of 12, she was prevented from celebrating a Bat Mitzvah. “Nobody could have imagined then that there would be an event such as this. Around us people were being killed and murdered, so why would we think about celebrating a Bat Mitzvah or Bar Mitzvah for someone.
87-year old Yaacov Waldman was one of the Bar Mitzvah ‘boys’. At age 13 he was a child in Poland. “I remember that time, we wandered around with family and we searched for a hiding place for ourselves, just to hide, to flee, who thought about a Bar Mitzvah? When the war ended and we had managed to survive, everything around us was destroyed- and also then nobody gave thought to a Bar Mitzvah. Those who went through that hell were not capable of celebrating”. Waldman, who was the third to be called up to the Torah, described that moment as one of the happiest of his life. “I said Kaddish and I blessed the entire people of Israel, also the people who weren’t celebrating and who will no longer celebrate again, who aren’t here with us today, our relatives”.
Usually Bar Mitzvahs are small, but this time Sabag decided to go big. “We have gone for a big event in order to give them the chance to close the cycle. If the Nazi oppressor stole their youth, then the ceremony today constitutes as a sign that their plan failed.
Knesset member Yair Lapid told the survivors about his father who was in a ghetto at age 13 and he even he did not manage to carry out his Bar Mitzvah ceremony. “My father was in ghetto Budapest in a crammed basement in which close to six hundred people lived together. And his Mother- my Grandmother called him over to her and said to him “Tomich, today you will have a Bar Mitzvah. You father won’t come to the Bar Mitzvah and I think he won’t come back ever again. And I can’t bake you a cake, but there is one thing I can do”. And she took out from her bag a small bottle of perfume, ‘Chanel 5’, that she kept during the whole war, G-d knows how, and she smashed the bottle on the floor and said to my father, “At least I can do this so that there won’t be a horrible stench at my boy’s Bar Mitzvah”.
Immediately after the vibrant ceremony at the Kotel the delegation of around fifty five Holocaust survivors and another ten accompanying volunteers from the foundation who work day and night for the benefit of the Holocaust survivors, set out for the Knesset, where there awaiting them was a tour guiding them through the chamber and the Knesset itself, and after that a meeting with the Speaker of the Knesset Yuli (Yoel) Edelstein in the ‘Chagall Lounge’ who spoke at length, saying among other things- “I am hosting you all here and for me this is a great privilege, you don’t need to thank me that I am hosting you, on the contrary, I am grateful to all of you that you agreed to be our guests here at the Knesset. You are valuable and important people, we host not a small number of important people here in the Knesset, but this event will be inscribed in memory”.
He even revealed that he also did not celebrate a Bar Mitzvah in his youth as it was not made possible to him. Director of the foundation Mr. Shimon Sabag, promised immediately with a smile to the Speaker, that the foundation would organize such a ceremony for him, and he saw this as a promise, which he would be very happy to realize. The foundation would be happy to invite him in advance to visit the ‘Warm Home for Holocaust Survivors’ at the foundation in Haifa to carry out for the Speaker of the Knesset a late Bar Mitzvah ceremony.
At the end of the meeting, Speaker of the Knesset Edlestein awarded special certificates of appreciation and gifts to the happy ‘boys’ and ‘girls’.
At the event, the celebrators were also joined by Knesset member Dr. Anat Berko and Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan.
Director of the foundation Shimon Sabag said- “Even at the Bar Mitzvah ceremony of my own son I wasn’t so emotional, we are witnessing the existence of a rare happening of the greatest importance and holiness. It is an event that that the Holocaust survivors were meant to have been able to celebrate as children at age thirteen, that they were prevented from having because they were being pursued by the Nazis and were staying in ghettos and death camps. Those that survived, who stand with us here today at the Western Wall survived the hell of the death camps, remained alive and didn’t celebrate this special event for each Jewish boy and girl. We at the foundation see in this a supremely important and holy objective to carry out this event for them, for their sake and for their families’ sake”. Sabag added to this, emphasizing that- “The whole event was an initiative and a co-operation of the foundation ‘Yad Ezer Lechaver’ and the Holocaust survivors who together enjoyed a special day that has been etched into their memories and has granted them some added moments of joy, the Holocaust survivors deserve it all. People say- let the Holocaust survivors die with dignity, and I always say exactly the opposite- let them live with dignity. There is no doubt that the event was highly emotional for all of us, with tears shed at the Western Wall plaza, a remnant of our temple”.
The event was organized wonderfully by the foundation in an exemplary manner, and in the best way possible, as this sort of event is very complicated from a logistical point of view, with a large number of the Holocaust survivors in their senior years, in their 80s and even 90s, travelling by bus, who would normally have a wheelchair and other aids to help them walk.
One of the Bar Mitzvah ‘boys’, Mordecai (Motke) Lieber, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, told those present, with tears rolling down his face and the faces of those present at the event, his harrowing story about what happened to him at the time of the war and the Holocaust. He struggled to speak, and whilst crying, told of his suffering and of how he stood in the first line opposite the Germans with all his family. His mother asked him that if he survived and lived on, to tell his story to the whole world of what happened to all his family. Motke was the only one to survive from his entire family.
At the end of the emotional events at the Kotel and at the Knesset, on the way back from the event, all of the survivors and the guests were invited to a sumptuous celebratory meal at Abu Gosh restaurant, and following the meal they returned in the evening to their home in Haifa in song and in great joy, to their beds in the ‘Warm Home for Holocaust Survivors’ of the ‘Yad Ezer Lechaver’ foundation.
The next day, on Tuesday in the evening, hundreds of the celebrating guests, Holocaust survivors and their families assembled for an additional event for a continuation of the luxury Bar Mitzvah celebrations with a sumptuous dinner at the ‘Oranim’ halls in Haifa. The evening was graceful and in good taste according to friend of the foundation, journalist Yoni Halali. The evening began with a blessing from the foundation’s Rabbi, Rabbi Yaacov Maman, who blessed the Bar Mitzvah ‘boys’ and ‘girls’. After that founder and director of the foundation Mr. Shimon Sabag, went up to bless all the happy Holocaust survivors, thanked all the foundation’s employees and volunteers who helped greatly in the success of the Bar Mitzvah event in the best way possible, and pointed out that without them, an event like this could not have happened.
Mr. Sabag awarded three shields of ‘Social Justice’ on behalf of the foundation, first to Ms. Yudit Setz, assistant manager of the welfare department of the Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, which provides support each day of the year for the welfare of the Holocaust survivors at the foundation. A second shield was awarded to Holocaust survivor Ms. Chavah Herskowitz, who is herself a resident of the ‘Warm Home for Holocaust Survivors’, as well as a senior volunteer, in recognition of her efforts and limitless devotion to the Holocaust survivors in the foundation. A further shield to friend of the foundation Mr. Yoni Halali, who works day and night for the benefit of the Holocaust survivors at the foundation, and who has contributed a lot to the organization and to the success of its Bar Mitzvah project for the Holocaust survivors at the Kotel and the Knesset.
The event took place in the presence of many guests, among them the many employees and volunteers of the foundation, including the foundation’s loyal secretary Ms. Tami Sinar, Baruch Sabag, manager of the branch of the foundation in the city of Katzrin in the north, also social worker Ms. Amit Shaked, the foundation’s security officer Mr. Yisrael Cohen, senior security guard Mr. Reuben Frizi, who has helped on an entirely voluntary basis at all the foundation’s events since it was first founded, the senior and very first volunteer of the foundation, Aryeh Bronstein, Giora and his son, the Sabag family, the Halali family, the foundation’s lawyer Yigal Daninu, the accountant Galina, the foundation’s cook Shimon Hen, the American volunteer Philip Adams, manageress of the social club Ms. Nomi Iluz, Triyah Hiltonen the medical nurse, the volunteer from Finland, Mali Cohen and her daughter who helped greatly in the success of the Bar Mitzvah event, the foundation’s driver Marcelo Kibrik, and many other good people.
On the artistic side was comedienne Dinah Or, who managed to make everyone present laugh a great deal during her performance with sharp wit and a fine brand of humor. And on the musical side the jazz band, who stirred up the evening, in which all the Holocaust survivors joined in with dancing.
Those were two consecutive evenings filled with the most considerable emotion, during which not one eye stayed dry, hundreds of people who were present at the event were able to swear that they witnessed the stones of the Western Wall crying. We wish from all of us to all the Bar Mitzvah ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ a hearty Mazel Tov, it was truly exciting, may we always meet in joy!
Enormous photo gallery for the website: Joe Luciano, Roman Levingrad , Reuven Frizi
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