Some 40 Holocaust survivors, who turned 13 during World War II, arrived at the Western Wall plaza on Monday for a tefillin-laying ceremony, reading from the Torah and a festive meal.
The event included everything a bar mitzvah should have, including candy thrown by excited children at their grandparents. The ceremony was held in the presence of the Western Wall rabbi, IDF soldiers, family members and friends.
Kaddish for parents
Yehoshua Ben-Zion, who was born in Romania, was only a child when he was transferred to the Transnistria Ghetto. Today he has four daughters and eight grandchildren, and is enjoying his first great-grandson.
"The transition was very hard, and included a long walk by foot between different cities," he says, recalling how his aunt advised his mother to leave him at the side of the road, for fear that he would not survive the difficult road conditions. "I will not leave Tzika'le!" his mother responded. "And thanks to her I am sitting here today," he says.
'After more than 60 years in Israel, I am still very excited to be here today' (photo courtesy of JDC-Israel)
"When we arrived at the ghetto, mother carried an old cupboard which she lay down on the floor, and we slept in it in order to protect ourselves from the terrible winter chill. We suffered from diseases, and we constantly tried to keep in touch with father, who was taken to work at a factory making military shoes for the Nazis."
At the end of the war the family reunited, and after the State's establishment they moved to Israel and settled in the city of Netanya., north of Tel Aviv.
"I thank God that after 2,000 years I got to be part of the generation which survived the Holocaust and founded the State," he says. "After more than 60 years in Israel, I am still very excited to be here today."
He describes the bar mitzvah as a "real feeling of elation," saying that "after the ceremony I went to a quiet corner at the Western Wall on my own to say Kaddish for my mother and father. They fought for me, and after 70 years I dedicate this day to them."
Reading from Torah, singing 'Hatikva'
The project, initiated by the Western Wall administration and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC-Israel) in cooperation with the Ministry of Social Services, includes four groups of Holocaust survivors who will get to experience a full bar mitzvah for the first time at the Western Wall.
Monday's group toured the "Generations Center" at the site and met with IDF officers and soldiers, who escorted them as they lay tefillin and during the following celebration.
The highlight of the event was when the Holocaust survivors were called up to read from the Torah, as the young audience threw candy at them. The celebration was concluded with a singing of Israel's national anthem, "Hatikva" (the hope).
Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz said that "light and darkness are mixed in this event, but the hope is absolute. And here we have concrete evidence of the eternity of the Jewish people."
JDC-Israel Director Arnon Mantver noted that "the relationship between the Joint Distribution Committee and Holocaust survivors began already during World War II. It's only symbolic that we escort them in this moving closure."