The first mention of Jews in Slutsk was in 1583. The 1897 census records recorded 13,349 inhabitants in Slutsk, of which 10,264 were Jewish. On June 26th 1941, the Nazis overran the town of Slutsk, the 4th day of the war between the Soviet Union and Germany. The destruction of the Jews of the town and the town itself was well documented at the Neurenburg trials, and indeed one document, dated October 30, 1941, introduced at the trials, is known to be one of the most quoted documents from the Holocaust detailing the destruction of the Jews of Slutsk.
A newspaper article in the New York Herald, December 14, 1944, documents how a Jew travelling with the Red Army describes Slutsk, as they pushed westward towards Berlin in the closing period of the war. The article was written by Maurice Hindus, a correspondent for the American press with the Red Army. He had been born in Slutsk. The place had been so utterly destroyed that he did not recognize the town of his youth (in fact, he went miles past the town before he realised that he had missed it, so complete was the devastation).
The Jewish community of today’s Slutsk is small and isolated. The vestiges of a rich and flourishing Jewish Slutsk of days gone by. The Together Plan works to support this tiny community. We help to develop the youth of the community so that they can have a Sunday School and we connect their young adults to their peers in other communities in Belarus and to members of our Youth for Youth Movement in the UK and in the USA. In 2018 nine members of the Slutsk community participated in our summer programme in Belarus. During that July week, we celebrated the bar mitzvah of Stas Zaiko, from Bobruisk. Through our distance learning programme, Stas had learned Hebrew and his bar mitzvah took place on the territory of the now-abandoned Great Synagogue in Slonim.
At that bar mitzvah was Pavel, a member of the Slutsk Community, and we asked him if he too would like to have a bar mitzvah. Pavel, a shy and quiet twelve-year-old answered in the affirmative and so we set about putting a learning programme together for him. His Hebrew teacher, Liliane, was located in north London and lessons commenced on Zoom. Pavel’s English was very limited and Liliane had no knowledge of Russian. With the help of the JVN charity, we found our translator Gelena, who travelled weekly from south to north London (until Coronavirus put a stop to that) to support Liliane with the lessons. At intervals, Vlad (our Development Coordinator in Minsk) would join the Zoom lessons to support Pavel’s learning and Debra Brunner, The Together Plan’s CEO would sit in from time to time to observe the lessons.
Pavel’s parents were very distant from the entire process, almost dismissive. Their disconnect with this Jewish lifecycle event being a real example of the legacy of Communism which had banned religion for so many years, so much so that people forgot what to do, how to practice or how it could be of any significance in daily life. However, in spite of this, young people yearn for their identity and want to explore their Judaism. This is where our Youth for Youth programme has proven to be a lifeline, connecting youth across borders to help people connect and reconnect. Through powerful and genuine connections and the support and education that our invested and educated young adults bring, changes are evident. Through the imparting of skills, the building of friendships and ongoing support and encouragement, community initiatives in Belarus are slowly being implemented, changing the Jewish landscape in Belarus.
With the lessons ongoing and support from the Youth for Youth members, Pavel slowly worked on his Hebrew alphabet, then started to learn how to form words and then he began to read and learn the Torah portion for his bar mitzvah along with accompanying readings. The bar mitzvah date was set for 16th July and was going to be the highlight of our summer programme in Belarus. Sadly Coronavirus brought the summer programme to a halt. In the UK we faced a full lockdown but in Belarus, there was nothing of the sort as people were left to their own devices to navigate the dangers.
As the distance learning continued, meetings were held to assess the risks around holding the bar mitzvah in the Slutsk community centre. The ceremony was going to be officiated by Rina Friedinzon from the Polotsk Jewish Community and she would be bringing their Torah (a donation which was made possible with funds raised by The Together Plan’s Youth for Youth ambassadors). Was all this still possible in the height of a global pandemic? No-one, at any point, said they wanted to cancel, postpone or put the ceremony on hold. It was never a case of if, but only a case of how. As the weeks rolled on – we continued to monitor and evaluate the risks. Pavel continued to learn.
As June came to a close, it was decided that the bar mitzvah would indeed take place in the community centre in Slutsk, with a small group in attendance. Invitations were created by one of the UK Youth for Youth members to be shared online in Russian and English, and on July 16th Pavel did indeed read from the Torah in the tiny basement Jewish community centre in Slutsk. Members of the Polotsk Jewish community made the long journey across the country. Our team travelled from Minsk to coordinate the proceedings. Many people joined online from Ukraine, the UK and the USA and together we witnessed the first bar mitzvah in Slutsk for 25 years.
Everything is possible where there is determination, a passion and belief.
The Zoom recording of the ceremony is available, and we are happy to share it with you.
Please contact us if you would like to watch.