In the Jewish faith, when a bar mitzvah is held for a 13-year-old boy or a bat mitzvah for a 12-year-old girl, they are then considered religiously responsible adults within their faith.
For 59 Holocaust survivors from Orange County and San Diego who came of age during war or in the years of tumult after and never had the opportunity to affirm their faith through the sacred rite-of-passage, a b’nai mitzvah (the term for a ceremony for multiple people) held Sunday, Nov. 5, at the Merage Jewish Community Center in Irvine was described as an “overdue celebration” of their “Jewish identity and heritage that was robbed from them during their youth.”
When Walter Lachman, 95, was to have his bar mitzvah in 1941, the ceremony had to be held in a schoolhouse because all the synagogues in the community had been destroyed by Nazi violence. His mother died of leukemia when he was 7 and his father of tuberculosis just four years later.
“Mad at God” for all he had lost, Lachman, who had been born in Berlin, refused during the ceremony to read from the Torah. The next year he was put on a train with his grandmother and taken to the first of three concentration camps he survived before being liberated on April 15, 1945.
The Laguna Niguel resident said he found closure properly commemorating the belated rite of passage with Sunday’s celebration.
“I don’t know what got into my head as a 13-year-old kid,” Lachman said, having regretted his decision later in life. “I’ve been looking forward to this event.”
The ceremony was sponsored by the Honig Family Foundation, a nonprofit started by Newport Beach philanthropist and entrepreneur Ken Honig, and featured survivors who immigrated to the U.S. from 14 countries, including Algeria, France, Germany and Ukraine.
“Their Holocaust-era experiences vary tremendously as does their country of origin, age and stage of life at the time of WWII,” said Honig, a student of the Holocaust who helped build the Merage Jewish Community Center in Irvine and fund Chapman University’s Holocaust Studies Program.
“Their’s is a tapestry, a big picture made up of many different individual stories threaded throughout that time in history,” he said during Sunday’s ceremony. “We have here those who were young adults and those who were infants or in utero and who may not have their personal memories, but whose lives were imprinted during the years following the war as they came to understand their collective losses.”
The oldest survivor to be celebrated in Sunday’s b’nai mitzvah was 102-year-old Helen Weil of Laguna Woods.
Born in Germany in 1921, Weil’s parents and older sister were deported to a concentration camp in 1938, where they died. With help, she managed to escape to England and stay with a family in the Yorkshire region before eventually obtaining a visa to come to the United States at age 20. She never had the chance to have a traditional bat mitzvah.
“Now I’m here to still enjoy life,” Weil said, describing the “wonderful” feeling of participating in a b’nai mitzvah. “It’s a holiday we are celebrating today.”
Laura Breitberg, 83, was just 8 months old when war broke out in Russia and her family fled to Siberia.
“And on the way we were bombed several times and some of my relatives were killed,” said Breitberg, a San Diego County resident.
“I think that today, it’s a great thing,” Breitberg said of the b’nai mitzvah held for the survivors. “And especially very symbolic for me personally because I’m getting bat mitzvah to celebrate, to be proud of being Jewish, to celebrate this thing and to show the younger generation how important it is to keep your Jewish identity.”
Honig said he was inspired to organize the b’nai mitzvah during a trip to Jerusalem in January, when he made a pilgrimage to the Western Wall, also known as the “Wailing Wall.”
For centuries, the wall has served as a symbol of faith and a place for prayer and reflection for generations of Jews.
“After witnessing many of the elderly praying there, I started to think about how many of these people had a bar or bat mitzvah in their past,” said Honig, a former wrestler, rugby player and real estate developer who retired at age of 37 to engage in charity work.
When he returned to California, Honig said approached the Jewish Federation communities in San Diego and Orange County about finally giving Holocaust survivors the opportunity. With the help of local Jewish Family Service programs, which provide support and services to survivors, the offer to participate went out.
There are about 400 Holocaust survivors in Orange and San Diego counties, said Carole Yellen, senior director for the Center for Jewish Care at Jewish Family Service of San Diego.
Though planning for the b’nai mitzvah started earlier this year, the recent attack of Israel added new meaning to the day, said Carole Yellen, senior director for the Center for Jewish Care at Jewish Family Service of San Diego.
“In the midst of the heartbreak that we’re experiencing as a Jewish community, we have to take moments to celebrate loudly and proudly our Jewish identity and opportunities to celebrate in the Jewish community,” she said. “And that, I think, is giving a lot of people healing at this time.”
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