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Russian Jewish refugees experience first bar, bat mitzvahs in generations

“We didn’t just come to America to be free, we came to reconnect to our Jewish culture and traditions,” said Roman Shmulenson, executive director of COJECO.

Karina Shlionsky, center right, of Staten Island, joins

Karina Shlionsky, center right, of Staten Island, joins other children of Russian refugees as they prepare to read from the Torah during their Bnei Mitzvah (plural for Bar Mitzvah) on Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017. Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

When Leon Shor wanted to teach his 13-year-old son about Judaism, he couldn’t.

Shor, 44, came to the United States from Russia in 1993 and didn’t grow up practicing any of the religion’s traditions. But on Sunday, Shor’s son Aidan joined 17 other kids whose families immigrated from the former Soviet Union in having a bar or bat mitzvah inside the Ansche Chesed Synagogue on the Upper West Side.

“We knew we were Jewish, but we were never really exposed to any part of Jewish education,” said Shor, who lives in Plainview. “This program gave us the ability to connect to our Jewish roots.”

The program, in its first year, was run by the Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations, which supports Russian-speaking Jews in New York, and funded by the UJA-Federation of New York. It has already been funded for a second year.

The 18 students (the number 18 is spiritually significant in Judaism) studied for a year, learning about everything from religious traditions to Jewish history, and worked with a mentor in the community. Each family also picked a volunteer project, including working with animal shelters, cleaning up city beaches, and baking challah bread for others.

Roman Shmulenson, the executive director of COJECO, said for many of the families, it’s the first bar or bat mitzvah in several generations.

“Most families came to the United States as refugees, escaping official and unofficial anti-Semitism and persecution, and now, as they’re becoming more comfortable in America, they’re starting to reconnect with their heritage and their culture and traditions,” said Roman Shmulenson, the executive director of COJECO. “We are hoping this is just the beginning of the journey.”

The kids read Torah in groups as their friends and family looked on. True to their roots, the ceremony was held in English, Hebrew and Russian.

Alex Aronov, 43, of Sheepshead Bay, said he was proud to watch his 13-year-old son become a bar Mmitzvah on Sunday, 24 years after he came to the United States from Russia.

“It was a very touching moment. Me and my wife cried because I never had the ceremony for myself,” he said. “I always wanted my son to be more observant but I couldn’t teach him anything because I don’t have that background. I really felt great because he’s . . . coming to the roots.”

Aronov said he wanted a middle ground between a secular party to mark the important Jewish occasion and a very religious ceremony.

“This program offered a good mix . . . an introduction to Jewish culture, Jewish tradition, prayers,” he said. “He didn’t feel foreign because he was surrounded by kids with exactly the same background.”

Later this week, the group will travel to Israel for a five-day trip, many for the first time. For Shor, who didn’t know anything about Judaism when the family started the program, the trip will bring it all together.

“I think we came to the conclusion — and the trip to Israel will verify that — that there is room for us, and we feel much closer now to the Jewish community than we were before,” Shor said, adding: “It’s a process.”

Shmulenson, who himself came from Crimea in 1993, said the program provided a “culturally-sensitive and meaningful” introduction to Judaism.

“We didn’t just come to America to be free, we came to reconnect to our Jewish culture and traditions,” he said. “Our job is to make sure they know . . . they belong to the ancient, wise tradition.”

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