Joined by their families from Switzerland, Germany, Hungary, and Ukraine, as well as their friends and fraternity brothers from around the world, five young men from Vienna's Lauder Business School celebrated their bar mitzvahs last month, Chabad.org reported.
During the celebration, the young men were called to the Torah for the first time. The next day, they prayed in their new sets of tefillin, then shared a celebratory meal.
For seven weeks prior to the celebration, the young men studied Judaism and Jewish practice, including the observance of tefillin, with the school's Jewish Heritage Center Co-director Rabbi Boruch Sabbach and his wife Chaya Mushka.
The students were still savoring the experience weeks after they were called up to the Torah in the presence of 60 family members and friends.
The Lauder Business School, founded in 2003 with the assistance of philanthropist Ronald Lauder, is especially welcoming to Jewish students from Europe and abroad. Operating as a university of applied sciences in the Austrian education system, it is the one of the only universities in the European Union to be closed on Shabbat (Sabbath) and Jewish holidays. In addition, the Jewish Heritage Fund's scholarship program grants stipends to students, covering up to 80 percent of their housing and dining costs.
Dani Markus of Hungary spoke about why he decided to have a bar mitzvah nearly 10 years after the traditional age of 13.
“In my family, Judaism was never a core subject of conversation. But since I arrived at the business school, I felt that I needed to know more. During the preparation period held by the rabbi, we got to know the hows and whys of Jewish customs and traditions,” Markus explained.
For Peter Vandor, also from Hungary, “knowing about my roots and getting closer to them was the main purpose” for participation in the program.
“But even in my wildest dreams, I never thought it would be this successful,” he said. “I feel like we, as five Jewish students, made a huge step forward with our Jewish identity. I give a huge shout-out to Rabbi Boruch for guiding us as our mentor and making this program possible."
Although studies at the Lauder Business School are in English, the emotions associated with the event were distinctly European. Magdolna Várkonyi, an 88-year-old Holocaust survivor who came from Hungary, wept as she described how moved she was to see her first great-grandchild, Benjamin Pretzer, have a bar mitzvah celebration.
Sabbach said the success of the program exceeded his expectations.
“It was extraordinary to guide these five young men through this important Jewish milestone,” he said. “They showed a real commitment to the lessons, and their questions demonstrated a seriousness about the subject and their Judaism.”
Equally important, he emphasized, was the impact on the participants’ families.
“Several of the parents spoke about a new commitment to Judaism and a desire to send their younger children to Jewish schools,” he explained.
Purchase of new tefillin was arranged by Sabbach with the help of the Chabad on Campus International Tefillin Bank. The bar mitzvah program is a joint project of Chabad on Campus International and the Alpha Epsilon Pi International fraternity.
Six students have already signed up for a similar program for next year.