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'The First Time I Put On Tefillin Since The War'

MDA holds moving bar mitzvah ceremony at Western Wall for 87 Holocaust survivors who were robbed of the experience by the Nazis.
By Ari Yashar
First Publish: 4/9/2014, 3:37 PM

Bar mitzvah for holocaust survivors at Kotel
Bar mitzvah for holocaust survivors at Kotel
Assaf Brezinger Lugasi

An emotional group bar and bat mitzvah ceremony was held on Monday at Jerusalem's Western Wall (Kotel). The 87 participants were not 13- and 12-year-old boys and girls - they were elderly Holocaust survivors who had been robbed of the ceremony signifying Jewish adulthood by the Nazi regime.

The unique event was set in motion nine months ago, when workers and volunteers of Magen David Adom's (MDA) Holon station began volunteering at the local "Europe Britania" club for elderly in the city. Members of the station met with elderly weekly through the club, and got to know their stories.

Two months ago, while remembering their experiences in the Holocaust, a number of the elderly noted that they never had a bar or bat mitzvah due to the Nazi persecution. Upon hearing this, MDA workers decided to hold a late ceremony for the elderly survivors.

The plans bore fruition on Monday at the Kotel (Western Wall); "there we split into groups, each group traveled in the area and afterwards we held bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies with (the survivors) at the synagogue adjacent to the Kotel," said Ilan Teller, responsible for the MDA volunteers in Holon.

"The men put on tefillin (phylacteries), donned talit (prayer shawls), and went up to the Torah, according to the ritual. The women, who were in the women's section, threw candies at the participants and had the ceremony exactly as the youth do," added Teller. 

Teller noted that Kotel Chief Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich took part in the event, blessing the survivors, and that each one of them received a certificate from the club attesting to their having reached the age of Torah commandments.

"Yesterday was the first time I put on tefillin since the war"

One survivor who finally got to hold his bar mitzvah, 80-year-old Yaakov Eckstein, noted that he was born in Hungary, and at the age of ten was put into a ghetto. From there he was transferred to the Bergen-Belsen death camp.

"When I was freed by the Russians, I was already 11-and-a-half. After we searched for relatives and friends in Hungary and discovered none of them had made it home, we were forced to return to Germany," recounted Eckstein.

"When I was 13, it didn't even cross my mind to have a bar mitzvah. It wasn't a possibility. In 1948, I immigrated to Israel with my brother, and since then we are here," added Eckstein. "Since the day I was freed from Germany I didn't pray or step in a synagogue. Yesterday was the first time I put on tefillin since the war."

MDA Director General Eli Bin remarked "there's no doubt that with the help of MDA Holon station workers and volunteers, Holocaust survivors and those pursued by the Nazis got to experience something that will hopefully ease, if only a little, the trauma they experienced and their lost childhoods."

Bin noted that MDA is collecting donations to feed the elderly for the Passover holiday, and helping solitary elderly throughout Israel.

Holocaust survivors holding their late bar and bat mitzvahs at the Kotel Assaf Brezinger Lugasi