July 29, 2009

Bar/Bat Mitzvah Family Retreat Rekindles Jewish Life In Siberia

Looking at Dasha Mazanik, one would never know that at one time her only Jewish experience was limited to what her grandmother, and sole guardian, Tamara shared.

And yet today, Dasha, who was abandoned by her alcoholic mother after the death of her father, is an active participant in the JDC-supported Ulan-Ude JCC in Eastern Siberia, has taught Jewish tradition to youngsters, and participates in the JCC’s Shalom dance group. She even became a bat mitzvah in 2007.

That transformation culminated this year in Dasha’s service as a madricha (counselor) at JDC’s week-long Bar/Bat Mitzvah Program for young Jews and their families in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia. For those Jews, who live far from the traditional centers of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union, this program was an opportunity to renew ties to their Jewish heritage and have their own bar/bat mitzvah.

The program, created in 2005 by JDC Board Member Elaine Berke, included lectures, games, prayer, study, and discussions, culminating in a ceremony led by madrichim from the region who, like Dasha, have participated in past programs and Rabbinical students from California-based partner, the American Jewish University (AJU).

“Reconnecting Jews to their heritage is a cornerstone of JDC’s work and I am so pleased that the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Program ensures that every Jew in the region has the choice to engage in Jewish education and celebration,” said Berke, who again attended the ceremonies with her family this year. “ The program was filled with so much ruach and joy, it was astounding.”

Berke initiated the program after visiting the vast region and learning that Jewish life flourished there in the early 20th century, but that these Jewish coming-of-age ceremonies were then outlawed under communist rule. She began a special fundraising campaign to provide bar/bat mitzvah education and celebrations in a place that is better known for its historic gulags than for its Jewish experiences.

Hailing from distant Siberian Jewish communities like Krasnoyarsk, Kansk, Novosibirsk, Omsk, Tomsk, Ulan-Ude, and Barnaul, the families attending the program this year discovered traditions they had never heard of or experienced themselves.

“Everything was super,” said Dasha. “It was amazing how we became a real community during a week in retreat.”

JDC has a long history in Russia and re-entered in 1988, where it found a Jewish community struggling to reconnect with their past. Soviet Jewry lacked even the most basic knowledge of Jewish culture, religion, history, or community life. JDC then developed Jewish renewal and education programs throughout the former Soviet Union, designed to help the region’s estimated 1.3 million Jews create viable, self-sufficient Jewish communities.

The Bar/Bat Mitzvah Program exemplifies JDC’s ongoing commitment to providing outlets for Jews across the vast expanse of the FSU to connect with their Jewish heritage and each other. By engaging young people and their families, JDC not only educates today’s community, but tomorrow’s leaders. This program is one of approximately 60 Jewish renewal retreats that JDC will administer in the FSU during the summer of 2009.

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