Auckland community's barmitzvah surprise


A chance conversation between Holocaust survivor Shmuel Rothbard and Rabbi Nathanel Friedler of New Zealand’s Auckland Hebrew Congregation (AHC) set the wheels in motion for a spontaneous barmitzvah celebration almost 70 years after it was started.

Now living on a kibbutz in Israel, Holocaust survivors Shmuel and his wife Fridja Rothbard travelled to New Zealand in June to be hosted by the Zionist Federation, where they shared their stories of survival at schools and communities.

Rabbi Friedler of the Auckland Hebrew Congregation said the community was privileged to receive a Shabbat visit from Shmuel and his wife. But nothing prepared them for what happened later.

Rabbi Friedler said: “As I read the Torah, I asked Shmuel to come up to the bimah. Shmuel said, ‘I do not know what to do now’ as I showed him the blessings of the Torah. I asked him if he had ever had the chance to be called up. We were surprised when he said no, and even more surprised when he said that he had never been barmitzvah.”

Rabbi Friedler and Chabad New Zealand’s Rabbi Mendy then offered Shmuel his very own barmitzvah, which he accepted — at the tender age of 82.

Rabbi Friedler said: “He told us that it was when he was aged 12 in Poland, his mother made an early barmitzvah for him by giving him his father’s pair of tefillin. Sadly he did not see his parents after that, and would never complete his barmitzvah, even after so many years in Israel.

“We were honoured to fulfil this rite of passage for Shmuel.”

Rabbi Friedler says the Auckland Hebrew Congregation’s spontaneous celebration for Shmuel is indicative of the ethos of the Jewish community in Auckland.

“The Auckland Hebrew Congregation is such a modern, vibrant Jewish community. We welcome the opportunity to host overseas visitors and show them what a great lifestyle we have here.

“We encourage anyone considering a move overseas to seriously think about Auckland – just visit us. They can visit our community, Jewish school and community centre. And if they decide to stay, we’ll even pay their synagogues membership fees for two years to help them settle in!”

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