What do we want from our b’nai mitzvah students?
Acknowledgement and acceptance. We want them to acknowledge that they are part of the Jewish people. And we want them to accept their personal responsibility as a member of that community. But how do we convey to them the value of that Jewish engagement? Historian Salo Baron has suggested that we dwell not only on the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history” but rather on the “joy as well as ultimate redemption” of Judaism.
One successful route to Jewish engagement among adolescents is the Twin-with-a-Survivor program, created and developed by the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest, in New Jersey. In this program, young people learn about the Holocaust, but the most important lesson they take away is that while most survivors endured degradation and deprivation and lost everything and everyone they loved, they never lost their ties to Judaism.
In the program, pre-bar/bat mitzvah students meet with a Holocaust survivor – their twin – three times and either record the meetings with a video camera or with handwritten notes. (Parents, who find the sessions fascinating, often do the videotaping.) The students incorporate something of what they learned from the survivors into the d’var Torah they present at their bar or bat mitzvah. The congregation is visibly moved when the student speaks and when the survivor is called up for an honor. It is an emotional moment for the survivor, as well, particularly those who could not observe this milestone in their own lives.
The program also enriches the Holocaust Council. The reports and taped testimonies of each teen/survivor pair provide a fuller, more nuanced portrait of the survivor in the center’s archive.
And there have been wonderful unexpected ripple effects. Matthew Survis, of the Conservative synagogue Oheb Shalom Congregation, in South Orange, produced a three-part curriculum for his Hebrew school that was so impressive he’s been invited to present it at congregations and public schools. It was added to the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education curriculum. Some students, using online services, have published books of annotated photographs, while others have produced films they’ve shown in their schools. One mother, a musician and composer, was so inspired by her son’s twin that she turned her story into an award-winning play with original music.
Through twinning, students live the mitzvot of kibbud zekeinim (honoring the elderly), talmud Torah (learning) and zicharon (remembrance). They also come to appreciate other mitzvot, as well. When they learn how survivors lost their families, and how they did not have the opportunity to acknowledge their parents’ sacrifices, they understand the need for shalom bayit, peace in the home. When they learn about those who allowed the Holocaust to proceed unchecked, they are motivated to work for r’difat shalom (seeking peace). When they learn that the doors of the world were closed to the Jews of Europe, Zionism makes sense in a way it might not otherwise to those living in freedom and comfort. When they learn about Jewish rescuers and resistance, they value Jewish solidarity.
If in the course of the twinning survivors become ill, the students often visit them, practicing bikkur cholim. And by inviting survivors to their bar/bat mitzvah services and parties, they engage in hachnasat orchim (hospitality). In fact, after the formal program is over, survivors often join the students’ families for Shabbat and holidays, becoming part of their extended families. Several students call their twins every Friday to wish them Shabbat shalom.
The impact that twinning and the ongoing friendships has on the survivors is tremendous. For lone survivors – widows and widowers, people without children or with children who live far away – this is tremendously therapeutic. Most did not have the opportunity to relate their experiences in the aftermath of the Holocaust and felt marginalized. The knowledge that a young stranger is interested in listening, recording and telling their story is a tremendous boost. Holocaust denial is a growing concern to them and has compelled even those who were formerly silent to talk about their experiences.
As survivors are aging and dying, the chance to meet and hear a survivor in person will soon no longer be possible. Our community is blessed with many who are able and willing to take part in this program. One has twinned more than 30 times and continues to enjoy the experience. Even in communities with no survivors, the program can be modified through Skype or other electronic media. The taped testimonies of the Shoah Foundation and other institutions may provide a way for students to twin in the future.
Although most survivors are neither scholars nor historians, their personal histories teach us a lot about the Holocaust. Moreover, survivors are models of resilience and resourcefulness. Those who participate in the twinning program are living examples of hope and optimism.
These are people who faced despair with defiance and a desire to live, despite all odds. They are Jews who chose to live as Jews, creating new families and maintaining our traditions. They built Jewish schools and synagogues, as well as Holocaust memorials, museums and centers. Their desire to remain engaged, active and generous members of the Jewish community is the greatest and most lasting gift any b’nai mitzvah can receive.
Information can be found at www.jfedgmw.org/holocaust.