In S. Petersburg, A Text Message Leads To Life Changes

In S. Petersburg, A Text Message Leads To Life Changes

Bar Mitzvah boys stand under the tallit in the Grand Choral Synagogue. (

by Rebecca Rosenthal - S. Petersburg, Russia

July 1, 2008

( For many of the 100 S. Petersburg teenagers celebrating at an elaborate mass bar and bat mitzvah, their journey to the Jewish rite of passage began with a text message.

When the Jewish community of S. Petersburg began to offer bar and bat mitzvah preparations, they were up against the looming Soviet shadow. Communist anti-religious attitudes denied the parents and grandparents of today’s preteens in the former Soviet Union the opportunity to mark the traditional Jewish transition from childhood to adulthood. What would be a given to even the most marginally connected Jews living in the U.S. was a hazy memory, a relatively unknown observance.

Enter the power of the text message. Of the estimated 100,000 Jewish people living in S. Petersburg, 40,000 have signed up to receive information about happenings in the Jewish community, which is headed and staffed by Chabad-Lubavitch representatives who run an information center that brings news of Jewish programs directly to community members. In the spring, parents of eleven or twelve year olds found their phones buzzing with a text message about the bar and bat mitzvah program, available free of charge.

Interest in the program has been growing since its inception seven years ago. “In the past few years, parents have heard what bar and bat mitzvah is, and they do not want their children to miss the opportunity,” said Rabbi Menachem Mendel Pewzner, director of the S. Petersburg Jewish Community and a senior Chabad representative.

Registering via text message made parents’ amorphous desire to have a bar and bat mitzvah for a child easy to flesh out. Others attend because their children are students at Ohr Avner, from Jewish educational programs, and at the recommendation of the five Chabad centers close to the S. Petersburg program, which is directed by Rabbi Chaim Shaul Brook.

Chabad’s “Citywide Bar and Bat Mitzvah” program is much more than a party. To join, parents of the bar and bat mitzvah candidates join Chabad for a weekend retreat. As parents are introduced to the concept of Shabbat meals, lighting candles, singing Jewish songs, they learn about Jewish basics. For the next five months, their preteen children attended weekly classes on Jewish topics. The Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County contributed significant funding for the program.

“The priority is to give the preteens the most Jewish knowledge and to provide them with a good feeling about Judaism so they want to come back for more,” said Rabbi Pewzner.

Coordinating the Citywide Bar and Bat Mitzvah program is a rabbi personally familiar with the struggles and history of S. Petersburg’s Jewish community. Rabbi Daniel Ash was born in S. Petersburg. The son of refuseniks who struggled to obtain permission to leave the Soviet Union for Israel, Rabbi Ash returned to S. Petersburg to educate Jewish children, and through them their families, in his hometown.

As the children have studied, families have taken steps toward greater affiliation with Jewish life. According to Rabbi Brook, many parents have hung mezuzahs on their doors. Parents have signed their children up to attend Jewish summer camps and some have taken the step to enroll their children in Chabad’s Or Avner school, which runs from nursery through high school.  

On the night of the celebration this June, five hundred people gathered in the majestic Grand Choral Synagogue, built in the 1880s and restored to the Jewish community in 2000. A gallery of photos of the teens and their parents and siblings grinning down from the walls brought a sense of family to the evening. Beaming, the teens came forward to receive specially commissioned medals signifying their achievement. The loudest applause were heard when teens living in the Chabad’s home for disabled and disadvantaged children were called up.

In a moving tribute, one woman whose son graduated the bar mitzvah program rose and thanked Chabad. “I never had an opportunity to have a bat mitzvah, and I never imagined my son would, but here we are – and I am so grateful.” 

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