It quite literally means the initiation ceremony of a Jewish boy or girl who has reached the age of 13 (or 12 for a girl having a bat chayil in the Orthodox community) and signifies readiness to take a role in the community, observe religious precepts and be eligible to take part in public worship. In the UK, children have access to the religious community, rabbis, lay leaders and Jewish educators. In the main there is ready access to kosher food, an array of Jewish cultural offerings, in the major cities there are selections of Jewish schools and there are Jewish youth movements providing opportunities galore. In great swathes of the former Soviet Union, the situation is the polar opposite. In Belarus, there are only a handful of Orthodox Rabbis in the country and only one Reform Rabbi. Although there are Jewish people all over Belarus or people with Jewish lineage, the opportunities to make a real and meaningful connection and enable them to have access to Jewish life cycle events and real community are sparse. The former Soviet Union lives with the legacy of communism and the Holocaust. All religion was illegal under communist rule. Families stopped celebrating Jewish festivals and marking Shabbat. Quite simply there were no synagogues to attend. The Jewish world came to a halt, and those brave enough to pray in secret did so at great risk of imprisonment or worse. During the Stalin years (mid-1920s-53), Jews were killed, imprisoned, persecuted for their art. From the late 1960s, Jews tried to leave the Soviet Union, but the majority were repeatedly denied permission. During the Cold War Soviet Jews were thought to be a security liability or possible traitors. To apply for an exit visa, the applicants (and often their entire families) would have to leave their jobs, which in turn would make them vulnerable to charges of social parasitism, a criminal offence. They became known as the Refuseniks.
In Belarus, The Together Plan reach out where small nascent Jewish communities are trying to exist often with few resources, to offer children the opportunity to participate in our Youth for Youth programme and, where there is interest, to have a bar or bat mitzvah. This is a mighty challenge where the community is fragile. Currently, we are preparing Pavel in Slutsk for his bar mitzvah which will take place in July 2020. We provide online Hebrew lessons with an experienced London based volunteer Jewish lay leader. Our translators are Gelena (TTP UK volunteer) and Vlad (TTP Minsk). Taking a 13-year-old on a journey to learn not just Hebrew but to teach every element of what a bar mitzvah is and why it matters, when he lives in a world where his parents have no Jewish knowledge, his community offers little and bar mitzvah is not the norm, is complex and challenging. It makes us appreciate how much we have here in the UK. We know that reviving Judaism, one person at a time in the former Soviet Union truly is a miracle and a mitzvah. Together we can do this.