Bnai mitzvah links ex-Soviets to legacy

Growing up in the former Soviet Union, the eight young people had practically no background in Judaism and little opportunity to learn. But on a recent Shabbat, in front of several hundred people, the South Bay students became b'nai mitzvah at Congregation Beth David in Saratoga.

The group event marked the students' welcoming into the wider Jewish community, which made their studies possible.

For some, like Yanina Markova of San Jose, the rite of passage ties them to a long-dormant heritage.

"This bat mitzvah is a connection to my past, especially since my great-grandmother followed a lot of Jewish traditions," said the 12-year-old, who immigrated from St. Petersburg three years ago.

San Jose's Yuliya Gorlovetskaya, a 14-year-old formerly from Tblisi, Georgia, said the event marked a culmination of "a lot of hard work and changes that were emotional. From our Torah portion, Bemidbar, we learned to respect and value each other. We acquired an understanding of our ancestors. Our haftarah portion…taught us to be loyal and forgive."

For many group members, like San Jose's Vadim Sherman, 13, who immigrated eight years ago from Minsk, the experience helped them "appreciate and understand…what being Jewish is all about."

The 15-month accelerated b'nai mitzvah program for immigrants is the only one of its kind in the country, according to Carol Gopin, director of the Jewish Family Service of Santa Clara County and the person who conceived the program.

"Through our resettlement program we saw that these former refugees were hungry for Jewish knowledge," she said. "It occurred to me that this generation of children would be our future leaders and needed to develop Jewish identity."

The program's first b'nai mitzvah class was held two years ago. In addition to JFS, the program is supported by local synagogues and the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose, and is partially funded by the Milton Itzkowitz Emigre Resettlement fund at Beth David.

Rabbi Daniel Pressman oversaw the event. "We provided a program on these students' level since they didn't have the same experiences and knowledge as others in religious school," he said. "Our goal was to give them a general background in Judaism and Hebrew."

Several meetings were held with parents, whose exposure to Judaism was also limited. For this reason, the rabbi would liked to have more sessions with parents of future b'nai mitzvah students.

"I personally feel this is very important work — helping bring into the Jewish community new immigrants who have many obstacles to overcome," he said. "It is a moment when you feel the mission of the synagogue."

Students also studied under Marilyn Popper, who taught Jewish history, customs and traditions, and Karin Braunschweig, who taught Hebrew, blessings and prayers.

"My main challenge was to realize the students had little or no prior knowledge of Judaism," Popper said. "They questioned and challenged everything, asking, `Why?'"

Like Gorlovetskaya, 14-year-old Sofya Elperin, who came from Minsk, feels that she has evolved spiritually through a deepened understanding of Torah and prayer. The Cupertino teen now can be counted as part of the Jewish community.

But getting to that point wasn't easy. "The hardest part of the bar mitzvah studies was learning to read Hebrew," said 13-year-old Alex Yunderman, who moved from Kiev to Cupertino.

Edward Perepelitsky, 13, of San Jose said the hardest part of his studies was connecting all the facts in Judaism logically. He plans to "continue my studies at the temple's Hebrew high program, as do my other classmates."

Perepelitsky and his twin brother, Philipp, arrived in this country in 1988 from Lvov, Ukraine. Philipp describes his birthplace as "a very anti-Semitic area — which makes me even more proud to be doing this."

The first class was confusing and uncertain, said Rita Kompelmakher, 13, of San Jose, whose family came from Minsk. She was unfamiliar with the synagogue and felt out of place. Now, "I feel closer to the Jewish community and comfortable at Beth David.

She interpreted her Torah portion to mean that everyone is valued equally — and God loves everyone the same no matter what form of Judaism is followed. "I learned that being Jewish is simply a group of people living life as they believe it should be lived, in the image of God," Kompelmakher said. "And I am amazingly lucky to be Jewish."