A face for the forgotten

Little is known about Ruth Wertheim other than she didn’t live to see her eighth birthday.

Born in Germany, Wertheim died in 1941, one of the estimated 1.5 million children killed in the Holocaust.

For most people, those children remain nameless and faceless, their young lives so brutally extinguished before they even reached adolescence. But a new local program is trying to make up for that — in a small way — by twinning b’nai mitzvah students with those children who were lost.

Because of the program, which has gone national, Wertheim is no longer one of the nameless and faceless. Beginning next year, Lily Dilworth, 13, of San Francisco will recite the Kaddish — the prayer for the dead — annually for Wertheim on the anniversary of her own bat mitzvah.

“I think it connects me more to the Holocaust because I don’t have any family who survived or died in it,” Dilworth said a week after her bat mitzvah earlier in April. “I’ve learned about it, but I never had a connection to a specific person.”

Wertheim is also now remembered with a plaque on the wall at San Francisco’s Reform Congregation Sherith Israel, bought by Dilworth’s parents, who are members there.

“I think that it adds a seriousness and dignity to the bat mitzvah — who has so much now — to think back and remember somebody’s life that lasted such a short period of time,” said Lucy Dilworth, Lily’s mother. “It’s a significant thing to remember, and a useful one.”

Dilworth was a participant in the “Remember Us” project, begun by a Jewish educator in Santa Rosa, Gesher Calmenson, who came up with the idea of a b’nai mitzvah connecting with a child who never had the opportunity to have one.

An educator at the Reconstructionist Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati, Calmenson — like so many Jewish educators — realized that with the passing of the last generation of Holocaust survivors, children are having a harder time relating to this part of Jewish history.

But there was more to it than that. “We wanted children to have the opportunity to make a connection that had some quality of redemption to it,” he said. “We wanted to give the kids something meaningful to do that also allowed them to connect to it in a way that had meaning.”

Ner Shalom’s students immediately took to it, said Calmenson. “And, in fact, they wound up saying and doing these very thoughtful acts of memory for these lost children,” he said.

One such Ner Shalom student was Hannah Lushington of Monte Rio, whose Torah portion spoke of not leaving anyone behind. At her bat mitzvah last year, she talked about Sorela Goldsobel, who was killed in Treblinka.

“Sorela will be in my thoughts throughout my bat mitzvah, which will help her soul be at peace, and in that way, she will not be left behind,” Lushington said.

As Calmenson saw the b’nai mitzvah students responding in various ways, he realized the program could surely expand. He spoke to a mentor of his in Jewish education, Debbie Findling, a Jewish educator and program officer at the San Francisco-based Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund.

“She encouraged us to put in a grant proposal, and we did,” said Calmenson. When it was approved, Calmenson hired a colleague, Barbara Tobin, to do outreach to other synagogues, and Remember Us began to spread.

It’s now being implemented in seven states.

It’s quite a low-budget operation. Tobin and Calmenson spend most of their time contacting the various educators who work with b’nai mitzvah students to tell them about the program. They send a mentor’s guide, a parent’s guide and some ideas as to how the b’nai mitzvah can remember the child. The guides can also be downloaded from the organization’s Web site, www.remember-us.org.

They also provide the name of a child who was killed — obtained from Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel that has a vast database of victims.

They suggest a number of ways to remember the child:

Invite the student to do mitzvot b’shem — good deeds in the name of the child whose memory he or she is carrying.

Help the student prepare to speak the name of the remembered child from the bimah.

Invite the b’nai mitzvah to say Kaddish annually for the child who has been remembered.

And while the cost is minimal, Calmenson thinks the impact can be great.

“Our goal is trying to establish this as an enduring ritual in Judaism, like breaking a glass under the chuppah,” he said. Just like that symbolic gesture, “in a moment of great joy you remember the past, but we’re doing it in a redemptive way. As you celebrate, you honor the past.”

In addition to one at Cotati’s Ner Shalom, the pilot program began with a few students also participating at Sherith Israel, Berkeley’s Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom and Alameda’s Reform Temple Israel. More congregations were added in its second year, and now the program is operating in seven states.

And recently Calmenson received an e-mail from a man in Sydney, Australia, who happened to attend the bat mitzvah of a girl in the United States who remembered a lost child. The Australian e-mailed the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, trying to find out where this originated, and someone there knew about the project and put Calmenson in touch with him.

He wrote that his congregation in Sydney, which is Orthodox, is adapting the program to suit its own needs.

The Reform movement invited Calmenson to introduce the program in its journal for educators called “Torah at the Center,” and that article appeared last year.

And Rabbi Robert Abramson, director of the department of education of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, recently sent information about the program to a listserv whose members are education directors at all Conservative synagogues.

“We now live at a time where very quickly the generation who are survivors are dying out, so anything that starts to ritualize this in some way, and make people mindful of this, is of importance,” said Abramson, who is based in New York. “This is done in very fine taste, and it’s not terribly complicated for a congregation to take on. It also has a religious quality to it, so it just makes sense. We need these types of creative responses.”

The innovation of the program is greatly moving parents as well as their children, Calmenson said. And those attending such b’nai mitzvah seem to be deeply moved, as well.

Sophia Grace Ferar, a Ner Shalom member from Petaluma, said that when she dedicated each of her three aliyot to the Torah to a lost child, people looked as if they were going to cry.

Ferar was matched up with three children, and at her bat mitzvah she related the three extinguished lives to the Jewish priestly vestments mentioned in her Torah portion.

“Because of the Holocaust, the Jewish garment was torn. And by remembering these precious souls, we are helping to mend and rejoin the fibers of the garment’s fabric.”

Ferar then expressed the hope that the children and their families would feel a part of her bat mitzvah. “I hope it will help bring their souls into the peaceful light.”

Ferar said she felt a sense of accomplishment in remembering the lost children, and that by learning about the Holocaust in this way, “it made me feel grateful to be alive.”

About 20 children at Ner Shalom have gone through the program, and the congregation’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Elisheva Salamo, said that whatever they do or say, “it’s usually really brief. But it’s such a sweet thing to see and hear about whomever this young person is, and know they’re holding a place for that young person in their heart.”

McCaulay Singer-Milnes, who became a bat mitzvah earlier this year at Temple Israel in Alameda, paused for a moment of silence for her child, Otto Adler, who was killed at Auschwitz.

“It made me feel I was doing my part — “that, at least, I was doing something so that something good will come out of this horrible thing,” said Singer-Milnes.

And Jack Policar of Lucas Valley, another Ner Shalom member, chose his own child to remember: Rosa Rothman, his great-uncle’s sister who died at Auschwitz at age 13.

“It sort of felt like she shared my bar mitzvah,” said Policar.

Nancy Sheftel-Gomes, the educator at Sherith Israel who introduced the project last year, said that she finds the program effective because it’s an easy way to enhance the ritual.

At Sherith Israel, each b’nai mitzvah is required to do some kind of mitzvah project, and while Remember Us is not to replace that, it adds an extra layer of meaning, she said.

“They may not remember the words in their Torah portion 10 years from now,” she said, “but I think this will stick with them.”

The victims remember

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."