Pidyon Haben at Kiryat Noar
Pidyon Haben at Kiryat NoarYoni Kempinski

Eleven new immigrant students from Russia, all of them first-born sons, were “redeemed” in a moving "Pidyon HaBen" ceremony held recently at Boys Town Jerusalem.

The age-old, symbolic redemption of the first-born, which usually takes place when a child is one month old, may be carried out from age 13 by a Kohen [the priestly tribe] who was not redeemed as a baby. Rabbi Simcha HaKohen Kook, Chief Rabbi of Rehovot, guided the Boys Town students through the ritual in their new homeland, in a gala celebration joined by members of the school’s Israeli students and faculty alike.

The 11 first-borns are among 48 students from across Russia who are living and studying in Boys Town Jerusalem’s Russian-language “OhrDessa” program. Most of the students, ages 14-17, have left their parents and families to come to Israel on their own. According to Rabbi David Ben Zimra, director of the OhrDessa program at Boys Town, the majority of the young men come from single-parent homes plagued by serious financial problems. Each has begun his journey at Boys Town to discover his Jewish heritage—while studying an intensive academic high school curriculum as well.

“The Pidyon HaBen ceremony marked a milestone for all our students,” Rabbi Ben Zimra declared. “They have studied about the significance of the redemption, and the very close relationship in Judaism between the Almighty and His children.” Rabbi Kook told the young men, “You have now become full constituents of the Jewish People.”

Among the special guests joining the Boys Town ceremony and the festive meal and dancing that followed was Rabbi Shlomo Bakst, Chief Rabbi of Odessa, who was visiting Israel at the time. Longtime Boys Town supporters Mr. and Mrs. Morton Zemel, formerly of Boca Raton, FL and now new immigrants to Israel, came bearing a precious gift. In keeping with their tradition to donate tefillin (phylacteries) to needy Boys Town students, they presented a set of tefillin to 14-year-old Gavriel Afchaza of Saratov, Russia, who was marking his Pidyon HaBen just weeks after his brit mila circumcision.

For Rabbi Ben Zimra, two additional true guests of honor were two young soldiers who came “home” to attend the ceremony. Yitzchak Gesel and Ariel Smirnov, both graduates of the Boys Town OhrDessa program, are now serving in the IDF Home Front Command and the Communications Division, respectively.

The young men, themselves first-borns, had taken part in a previous Pidyon HaBen ceremony at Boys Town. Both answered a hearty “Amen” as Rabbi Kook blessed the new students with the traditional priestly blessing, saying, “May the L-rd bless you and keep you. May He make His countenance to shine upon you, and give you peace.”