Bar and Bat Mitzvahs in Siberia

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Young Jews in Siberia take part in a Bar Mitzvah ceremony.

In 2005, while on a trip to Siberia with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), board member Elaine Berke asked a roomful of Jewish students whether they’d had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

Only two raised their hands.

“It’s never too late,” said Berke, who herself had been Bat Mitzvahed at age 60. Thus began Berke’s inspired campaign to bring Bar and Bat Mitzvahs to the isolated Jews of Siberia.

JDC, with the support of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, works in nearly 70 countries to alleviate hunger, rescue Jews from danger and create lasting connections to Jewish life.

When JDC members re-entered the vast region of Siberia in 1988, they found that Jewish life had been all but stamped out under communist rule, leaving the remaining 1.3 million Jews lacking in even the most basic knowledge of Jewish culture, religion, history or community life. JDC’s efforts toward Jewish renewal have included education and community-building programs across the former Soviet Union — including Berke’s Bar and Bat Mitzvah program.

Each year for more than a decade, about 50 kids and their families travel from across Siberia — distant Jewish enclaves like Krasnoyarsk, Kansk, Novosibirsk, Omsk, Tomsk, Ulan-Ude and Barnaul — to gather for a weeklong retreat, learning Jewish traditions anew. The week culminates in a massive Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebration.

“It was amazing how we became a real community during a week in retreat,” said past participant Dasha Mazanik, a member of the B’nai Mitzvah class of 2007. Participants return home with a new Jewish connection and pride that they share with others and, in that way, begin knitting a Jewish community back together.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia supports programming that strengthens Jewish life all over the world. To donate, visit jewishphilly.org/donate. And if, like Elaine Berke, you’re inspired to create a legacy project of your own, contact Director of Planned Giving and Endowments Rachel Gross at [email protected] or 215-832-0572.

Federation Housing: Aging with Independence, Dignity and Care

There’s not much you can get for a dollar these days, not even at the dollar store. But at the Evelyn & Daniel Tabas House in Northeast Philadelphia, that’s the entire cost of breakfast in the communal dining room.

After breakfast, the residents of the 61-unit apartment complex, all ages 62 or over, might spend a few hours in the library, the computer center, reading the newspaper or kibitzing (chatting) with friends before returning for a hot lunch — also for only a dollar.

The Senior Congregate Meal Program, supported by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, “truly changes the lives of the people who live here,” said Eric Naftulin, CEO of Federation Housing Inc., the management and development company that owns the Tabas House. And he’s not just talking about the nourishment: “It gives them a reason to get out of their apartments,” helping residents to stay active and make friends.

The Tabas House is one of 11 affordable communities for older adults owned by Federation Housing. Located throughout Philadelphia, Montgomery and Bucks counties, these communities house more than 1,500 individuals whose average annual income is $13,200 and who all receive public assistance.

On such a tight budget, older adults often struggle to pay for basic necessities such as rent, medications, doctor visits, food and social activities. At Federation Housing, residents can afford to meet their needs, in large part because of the highly subsidized rent, but also because Federation Housing goes above and beyond what is expected of a management company.

The staff cares for residents as if they were family. Each community employs a social service worker who checks in with residents, making sure the fridge is stocked, coordinating rides and scheduling doctor appointments. A Federation Housing rabbi makes frequent rounds, performing High Holiday and Shabbat services.

All of these services — transportation, socialization activities, check-ins and utilities — are provided free of charge. Federation Housing helps older adults to age in place, not just with financial security but with the independence, dignity and care they deserve.

“Not having to always lean on a family member gives our residents a wonderful sense of pride,” Naftulin said.

No wonder the average stay in a Federation Housing apartment is 12-15 years.

To learn more about Federation Housing, visit federationhousing.org.

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