Keira Edwards’s batmitzvah was one of the biggest days of her life, but she was more than happy to share it.
“I felt it made it more special,” the 13-year-old says. “I wasn’t just having a batmitzvah for myself, but for the sake of someone else.”
That someone was not a person she had ever met. In fact, Lydia Fischer had died decades before Keira was even born. And yet she was remembered at the ceremony at Newcastle Reform Synagogue in February.
This was because Keira chose to twin her batmitzvah through Yad Vashem. She contacted the British branch of the charity, which runs a specific programme that matches bar or batmitzvah celebrants with one of the 1.5 million children who died in the Holocaust. Lydia — whose birthday was the same as Keira’s and was born in Bratislava on January 30 1934 — was just 10 when she died, in Auschwitz.
Yad Vashem sent Keira and her family a folder of information about Lydia so they could research her story. Keira made a demonstration board which was displayed by the bimah during her batmitzvah ceremony, and she also referenced the twinning during her Dvar Torah. Her portion was the 10 Commandments, and she talked about how the Germans did not follow these during the Second World War.
“I felt good that I was keeping Lydia’s memory alive,” she says. “It felt like doing a good deed for someone else.”
Keira is not the only child keen to see their bar or batmitzvah as more than just a party. There are a number of Jewish charities that run programmes emphasising that this is also a time to think about those less fortunate than themselves. Many offer the chance of a “twin” to celebrate with, or to raise money for a charity that helps a child of their own age.
Emunah, the social welfare organisation which supports disadvantaged children in Israel, has been running a twinning programme since 2005 and has raised nearly £120,000 through the scheme. This money goes to help provide bar- and batmitzvah celebrations at the Sarah Herzog Centre in Afula, northern Israel, as well as therapies and activities for the children throughout the whole year. All the children at the centre are at risk and the twinning programme gives them the chance of a party, presents, clothes and simply, as Deborah Nathan, the executive director, says: “to know that children in the UK care about them.”
Those who want to take part can choose to twin with a specific child at the centre — starting a relationship via email or letter — or make a general contribution to the charity. The British children can fundraise in any way they choose, whether it’s by a bake sale or washing cars, but, Nathan adds: “the most important thing is the connection with our children. It’s when they stop being a charity case and become a real person.”
Gabriel Apfel, from Barnet, paired up with a different charity, Jewish Child’s Day (JCD), for his barmitzvah. The organisation made efforts to find an appropriate “twin” and Gabriel and Ariel, who lives in Netanya, began to exchange emails at the end of last year.
Gabriel raised the money for the programme by what he describes as “walking the Northern Line” during chol hamoed Pesach, going from Kennington to High Barnet along with his dad, Jeremy.
He says: “We raised about £1,000 which was donated from friends and family, and the funds went towards Ariel’s tallit, tefillin, a breakfast after the barmitzvah and also the barmitzvah party, which was rock-climbing for his whole class.”
Gabriel and Jeremy went to Israel for Ariel’s barmitzvah in May and Jeremy says the service, at a French-Sephardi synagogue in Netanya, was “very emotional for the family”.
“We met Ariel, his two brothers and his mum and they were very nice,” adds Gabriel, who attends JFS. “I realised that I am very fortunate and I wanted to give a boy in Israel that isn’t as lucky as me, the chance to have an amazing barmitzvah as well.”
The twinning was made through one of JCD’s projects, The Netanya Foundation, which runs the “Moadonit” programme, an after-school club for children at risk. These young people attend the clubs every day after school and only return home to sleep.
The bnei mitzvah scheme has been going for more than a decade and executive director Nicole Gordon describes it as something which those who take part “will remember for the rest of their lives.
“It’s about giving kids an understanding of how important it is to raise money for those less fortunate than themselves.”
The same could be said of many other bnei mitzvah schemes, including that run by Myisrael. It encompasses 18 charities that go “under the radar” and range from helping people with special needs to women at risk, to children with communication problems to supporting lone soldiers.
Myisrael provides a list of possible fundraising ideas. All the money raised goes to the charities themselves and the charity feeds back exactly how it is used.
There is also a twinning programme with the Ethiopian community that includes a communal barmitzvah party which takes place each October.
Boys Town Jerusalem is another Israeli-based charity which helps vulnerable children and has recently launched a new programme, called 13 for 13. Funds raised go towards boys at a secondary school in Israel and those involved are encouraged to do something connected to the number 13, whether it’s walking 13 miles or washing 13 cars.
“A large number of the boys helped are from households that can’t afford to do any kind of barmitzvah celebration,” says Ian Kamiel, the executive development director; “£100 will help buy clothes and shoes for a barmitzvah, while larger amounts allow the school to put on a party for the boy and his classmates.”
“Children can feel they are contributing to someone the same age as them,” he adds. “We want to encourage young people here to make a connection both with the boy and also with Israel.”
A connection with Israel is also one of the components of the long-running UJIA twinning project. UJIA has been working with the Ethiopian community in Kiriyat Bialik, near Haifa, for at least 20 years. The scheme is well-established and popular, and 110 British children have signed up already this year – the biggest cohort yet.
“We saw that there was a real opportunity to link children of the UK coming up to their bar- or bat mitzvah and members of the Ethiopian community who would not be able to have a barmitzvah without the help from outside bodies,” says Melanie Kelly from UJIA.
But the twist with this programme is that it has an educational element and those who take part are invited to learning sessions throughout the academic year running up to their simchah (which means some forethought on the family’s part). The clubs, in Glasgow, Leeds, London, Liverpool and Manchester, involve around 10 to 12 children in each, and are encouraged to raise £1,200 in total, although there are opportunities for individual twinning too. The Ethiopian-Israeli children take part in a programme to teach them about becoming a Jewish adult.
“We feel that this puts some more meaning and value into a bar or batmitzvah celebration,” says Kelly, who adds that the British participants get a great deal out of the experience.
“There’s an appreciation that there are other Jews in the world who don’t look like them, and an understanding that they are privileged,” she says. “They are learning about Israel beyond the beach and making an actual personal connection which is very special.”
Children are put in touch with their “twin” during the year and invited to a celebration in Israel each July (including a shared bnei mitzvah ceremony for the Ethiopian participants).
World Jewish Relief is another of the bigger players in the bnei mitzvah charity schemes. Well known for being the British Jewish community’s response to disasters affecting people around the world, they offer a step by step guide for children to run their own fundraising event.
“It’s not a twinning programme as such,” says Samantha Martin, Community Engagement Officer. “It’s something more. It’s about the importance of tzedekah and about feeling part of your community in order to help others.
World Jewish Relief was one of the charities which Noah Shulman-Miller, 14, chose to fundraise for when it was his barmitzvah last year. He raised over £4,000 by completing seven challenges, including a two km swimming challenge, a 23km cycle circuit and a 13km “Jewish journey” walk which went from Bevis Marks to New North London synagogue.
Noah and his family also went on a family barmitzvah trip to Moldova where he could see the charity’s work in action.
“I saw some very emotional and moving sights during my time in the country, he says. “I was very thankful to the charity for letting me experience first-hand their essential work.”
“I knew very little about World Jewish Relief, but my parents introduced them to me and I fell in love with their motivations. It made me feel great doing all this work for charity and I loved the idea that I was helping this great cause. I’ve recently become a Young Advocate for World Jewish Relief and I’d love to continue doing more work with them in the foreseeable future.”