13 is a lucky number for 52 bar mitzvah boys in Moscow

MOSCOW — Yana and Volodya Berkovsky began thinking about their own son's bar mitzvah when they first attended a bar mitzvah ceremony while visiting New York.

But the Moscow couple said they never imagined their son's bar mitzvah would turn into the large-scale event they celebrated recently along with dozens of Russian Jewish families in a Moscow synagogue.

Earlier this month, Zinovy Berkovsky was among 52 boys from Moscow and other parts of Russia who celebrated at a mass ceremony at Moscow's Marina Roscha Synagogue.

"It is such a big holiday for us," Yana Berkovsky said. "We surely didn't expect it to be this way."

The event is believed to be the largest such celebration ever held in the region.

More than a decade after the collapse of communism, traditional Jewish celebrations — including bar and bat mitzvahs — are now taking place in many communities across the former Soviet Union.

Orthodox and liberal Jewish groups now offer bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies that are generally paid for by overseas donors.

Most Jews are not affiliated with synagogues or other Jewish organizations, and the level of Jewish knowledge remains very low — among children as well as adults.

"My mom got a letter in the mail from the synagogue," Zhenya Lyuvarov, one of the bar mitzvah boys said at the ceremony. "She liked the idea and now I'm glad she did."

The synagogue was festooned with blue and white balloons. Guests were treated to Jewish music provided by the community center's band — and to a dinner that concluded with a huge cake baked in the shape of figures "1" and "3" and the words "mazel tov."

Seating for boys was arranged in three ascending rows on a podium at the synagogue's eastern wall. The boys sported dark blue yarmulke and white shirts, some with bow ties. Some looked bewildered by the attention they received.

He added that most of the kids in the group did not have a brit milah, or circumcision.

On the eve of the ceremony, the group was taken to a retreat outside of Moscow for their first-ever Shabbat experience.

"Every second was a surprise for them," Mishulovin said. "They kept asking what is this, why we do that?"