Even in Siberia, It’s Never Too Late for a Jewish Awakening

Participants in the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Family Camp reading from a Torah scroll in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk in August 2014; photo by Roman Ibragimov.
Participants in the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Family Camp reading from a Torah scroll in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk in August 2014; photo by Roman Ibragimov.

By Elaine Berke

Siberia is not known for its welcoming appeal. But in 2005, I stood for the first time in the warm glow of a small group of eager Jewish students in Khabarovsk, a remote Siberian town on the border with China, and asked how many of them had a bar or bat mitzvah.

Two raised their hands. While many said they would have liked to have celebrated that Jewish rite of passage, they felt too old to do so.

Yet three weeks ago on Shabbat – nine years later – I stood in awe as more than 70 Jews from across this vast region of Russia recited prayers, read Torah, and learned about Judaism at a hotel in Novosibirsk, the unofficial capital of Siberia.

They were participants in the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Family Camp, a program I founded together with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) that trains Jewish youths and adults to undergo bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies and to strengthen their Jewish identities.

Witnessing this event was, for me, the culmination of the effort that started back in 2005 with my initial trip to the Russian hinterland, evocative of so much history.

At that time, Jewish communities across the vast expanses of Siberia – stretching from the Pacific Ocean in the east all the way to the Ural Mountains in the west – were starting to re-emerge after decades of oppression under Communism.

In cities like Novosibirsk, Tomsk, Krasnoyarsk, and others, tens of thousands of people were reclaiming their Jewish identities and rebuilding synagogues and community centers, with the help of a number of Jewish organizations and local initiatives.

But because of decades of Soviet oppression – including bans on Jewish religious practice and Jewish quotas in a variety of Soviet institutions – they did not have the tools to do so on their own. Important rites like being bar or bat mitzvahed were rare.

That saddened me at the time because of the value I believe that Jewish tradition has, a value I imparted to my children. So I was touched when on our way home from Russia, my daughter suggested something should be done.

Upon my return, I immediately discussed the matter with my rabbi, the American Jewish University, and JDC.

To get things going, money needed to be raised. Yet with the combined efforts of my organizational and local community partners, as well as private funders, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Family Camp was soon born. Now entering its 10th year, the program has been nothing short of miraculous. To date, more than 500 people from 17 cities have celebrated their bar and bat mitzvah.

That is due in no small measure to the stalwart efforts of JDC’s Dr. Boris B. Boguslavsky, who has lead the program since its inception and has coordinated it in every city that it has reached. Feedback from participants has been overwhelmingly positive.

“For us it’s not just a ceremony, it’s something bigger than one week or one day, it’s something that will be with us forever,” said Iliya Kazakov, 15, from Kemerovo, who I met on my recent trip.

Iliya is not alone.

Darina Valento, who is 15 and also from Kemerovo, said the experience inspired her to continue to learn Hebrew. Robert Sherbakov of Novosibirsk, 13, said the ceremony changed his “point of view about being Jewish” and made him want to learn more about Judaism.

More than two decades after the fall of Communism, when Jewish life across the former Soviet Union was nearly extinct, the voices of Jewish young adults and their counterparts of all ages singing Torah is a testament to the strength and resilience of the Jews in that corner of the world. It’s also proof that the old adage is true: “It’s never too late.”

Elaine Berke is a longtime leader in the greater Los Angeles Jewish community and a member of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) Board of Directors.