February 24, 2020

How one survivor’s bar mitzvah journey transformed an entire congregation

Abe Teitman was 6 when his father was drafted into the Soviet army, never to be seen again, and 7 when his mother died of typhus. By 1946, when he turned 13, he found himself in a home for Jewish orphans in chaotic postwar Poland. The orphanage was a hard place where “nobody thought about a bar mitzvah,” he said.

More than seven decades later, on April 22, he stood in a chapel at the American Jewish University (AJU), looking dapper in a dark suit, polka-dot bowtie and a matching pocket square, preparing to be called to the Torah, at long last.

After he read a brief passage from the week’s portion, the crowd broke out in song, “Mazel tov and siman tov!”

As custom dictates, the bar mitzvah “boy” took to the podium to share some words of wisdom with the roughly 50 people who attended — family, friends and members of the Nachshon Minyan, which meets at AJU in Bel Air.

“Better late than never,” he said.

The Saturday morning service was the culmination of a journey not just for the 84-year-old Holocaust survivor, but also for the small but spirited congregation that gathers each week at the hilltop campus.

It was the first of what the congregation hopes will be many b’nai mitzvah for older Jews whose childhood and teenage years were interrupted by the Holocaust.

The final chapter of Teitman’s bar mitzvah journey began three years ago, when Hannah Mandel, then a recent Occidental College graduate and a participant in the AmeriCorps VISTA community service program, approached the minyan.

“There was a huge need for families to come together with survivors in the community for interaction,” Mandel said.

She had a proposal for the tight-knit, nondenominational congregation: pair 15 families with 15 Holocaust survivors, who would meet regularly for shared activities based on the survivors’ interests.

“I wanted them to have human interactions,” she said. “Not just, ‘What happened to you in the past?’ ”

Teitman, a former college history professor, was matched with Yona Engel and Lilia Arbona, a married couple who regularly attend the Nachshon Minyan. Soon, they were fast friends.

“He didn’t really get out a lot,” Arbona said. “Now he calls us, he wants to go places. … He has a community now.”

Teitman began attending the Nachshon Minyan as often as he could. On one occasion, he mentioned to Rabbi Cantor Judy Greenfeld that he had never had a bar mitzvah.

“She said, ‘We’re going to make you a bar mitzvah,’ ” Teitman said. “I thought she was just saying it.”

From left: Rabbi Cantor Judy Greenfeld, Abe Teitman, Nachshon Minyan’s Holocaust Survivor Program Coordinator Hannah Mandel and Nachshon Minyan Executive Director Sandra Gelfat at Teitman’s bar mitzvah.


He kept his remarks to the congregation short and sweet, saying, “a bar mitzvah should be happy, so I don’t want to talk about history.”

He did take a moment, however, to note the historic nature of the Torah scroll from which he read, brand new to the minyan.

His reading was the first since before World War II from a scroll that rode out the war in a decrepit barn outside of Prague. It was one of 1,564 so-called Czech scrolls plundered by the Nazis and collected as part of an effort to catalog the memorabilia of what they hoped would soon be an extinct race. Ironically, the nefarious project ended up saving the Torahs, which were later rescued by a Jewish philanthropist and taken to England to be restored and distributed.

“This Torah is really a lucky Torah,” Teitman told the crowd.

The scroll’s history made the event all the more meaningful for his friends and family who attended.

“To hear him read from it, it just brings such peace to my soul,” his daughter Tova Teitman Turk said.

Greenfeld sees the April 22 celebration as the pilot for many more to come.

“I just love the idea that across the generations, this is a place of connection,” she said.

To see that idea realized, Greenfeld turned to her longtime friend, Samara Hutman, director of Remember Us, the Bnai Mitzvah Project.

Remember Us connects aspiring bar and bat mitzvah students with the memory of a child who didn’t survive the Holocaust. The deceased child figuratively comes along for the ceremony of the living one, fulfilling a coming of age interrupted during World War II.

Teitman’s bar mitzvah marks the launch of a new program under Hutman’s direction, called Honor Us. Honor Us also will complete bar and bat mitzvahs interrupted by the Holocaust — but in this case, by helping shepherd survivors through the process many decades behind schedule.

Most Holocaust survivors who are alive today were children or teens when World War II threw their lives into disarray, interrupting any possibility of the Hebrew study and practice that traditionally precedes the rites of passage. Honor Us intends to begin correcting that.

But the explicit end goal of Honor Us is not to hold bar and bat mitzvahs for survivors. Instead, it hopes “to bring survivors closer to congregational life,” Hutman said.

During Teitman’s period of study leading to his bar mitzvah, he became close with Leo Blumenfield, a Nachshon teenager who recently completed his own bar mitzvah. Honor Us will model itself on their friendship by pairing bar and bat mitzvah students in their 80s and 90s with teens who previously participated in Hutman’s Remember Us program.

“We’re sitting in this very precious and finite moment with elders who have so much to teach us,” Hutman said, adding, “We’re going to soften the generational lines during this precious time.”