Pre-teens reclaim Judaism

New York Daily News, June 15, 2003

Like many 12-year-old Jewish boys, Daniel Vasserman of Mill Basin is preparing for his bar mitzvah.

In March, just after he turns 13, he is to lead part of the service at Temple Sholom, which serves Bergen Beach and Mill Basin. He will chant a segment from the Bible and deliver a speech about the significance of this milestone in his life.

The moment will signify to the religious community that he has reached the age of responsibility.

Daniel is studying much harder than most other boys preparing for this traditional rite of passage: His family comes from Odessa, Ukraine, and he began studying Hebrew in September.

Many American Jewish children begin formal study of the language no later than first or second grade. But Daniel said he is not discouraged.

“I enjoy studying,” he said. “I want to learn about my religion and the language of my religion.”

Daniel’s mother, Gretta, said, “In Russia, we were forbidden to talk of religion as children. We want Daniel to know what he has to do to become a proper Jewish man. Our son will have a real bar mitzvah. This is very important to our family.”

“We should have started him sooner, but we weren’t a very religious family,” Vasserman said. “But we do want him to understand who he is.”

Rabbi Ari Korenblit, the spiritual leader of Temple Sholom, said that this year alone, attendance at the synagogue’s Hebrew school rose from 18 to more than 100. Many new students are from Russian families who recently moved to Mill Basin or Bergen Beach.

“We are getting the children of the victims of communism,” the rabbi said. “Communism’s theology was anti-religion. In their birthing centers in some cities, there were signs that said, ‘There is no god.’ That was their religion.”

Korenblit said that while some Russian newcomers do not participate in religious life because it is not part of their tradition, other families are embracing Judaism.

“We do religious weddings for couples who didn’t have the opportunity to have them,” Korenblit said. “Dozens and dozens of adults have celebrated their bar or bat mitzvahs here. They’ve gotten Jewish names here – and the majority of them were Russian.

“When we have a life cycle ceremony, sometimes it’s the first Jewish ceremony the grandparents have witnessed since 1917. At weddings, sometimes the grandparents cry,” the rabbi added.

To welcome newly arrived families into the religious community, Temple Sholom offers free academic tutoring, as well as Hebrew classes, to children and adults.

“Many of these families have come from lineages of very prestigious scholars who would shudder to think that communism truncated that,” Korenblit said. “Now, many are proudly regaining a rich past.”

Reclaiming does not come without effort. Daniel said he must study daily and attend Hebrew classes twice a week as he makes up for lost time.

Getting a late start

Twelve-year-old Eduard Vaynkhadler, who also was born in Ukraine, said he knows he won’t have his bar mitzvah when he turns 13. He started studying Hebrew three weeks ago.

“But it’s better to be prepared and a bit late. Maybe by 2004,” Eduard said. “When I learn, I’ll have accomplished something I dream of doing. This is my goal.”

Eduard’s family also enrolled his sister Daniela, 6, and a cousin, Michelle Dratvin, 8, in Temple Sholom’s Hebrew school. The girls are starting language study on time. Daniela said learning new songs, drawing and singing are all fun things to do. Michelle is finding it a bit more difficult to make the adjustment.

“It’s hard,” Michelle said of learning Hebrew. “Harder than Russian, which we speak at home, and English, which we speak at school. You have to read from right to left. That’s different.”

But Michelle said that if she learns Hebrew, the future may hold a trip to Israel to visit family there.

Korenblit said there are tremendous rewards for Temple Sholom right now.

“America used to import rabbis from Russia because that was the seat of scholarship,” Korenblit said. “Now, American rabbis go there. We are returning a lost treasure to a people.”

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