When Elaine Berke visited Khabarovsk, Siberia, last November with a mission organized by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, she asked a roomful of local Jewish students if they had had a bar or bat mitzvah. Only one raised his hand. The others said, sadly, that they were too old. Berke told them about her own bat mitzvah at age 60. "It's never too late," she reassured them.
Nine months later, with the support of the Joint's Khabarovsk branch, Berke proved herself right: After raising $31,500, she succeeded in providing 61 Siberian Jews — ranging in age from 12 to over 20 — with a true bar/bat mitzvah experience.
On June 28, 40 boys and girls came to Khabarovsk from across the Far East. Twenty came from Birobidzhan, the Stalin-era Jewish autonomous republic, three hours away, while another 20 braved the overnight train from the Pacific port city of Vladivostok. Once in Khabarovsk, they met up with 21 members of the Khabarovsk Hillel, and together they began studying for their July 2 celebration. Though held in a Chabad synagogue, the ceremony was not conducted according to Chabad rules. As a result, boys and girls were both called to the Torah. However, in a nod to local custom, they sat separately.
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