Taglit Birthright Israel bar mitzvah celebrants: Aaron Chafetz (left to right), Michael Billet and Simon Svirnovskiy.
University of Virginia sophomore Simon Svirnovskiy, whose family emigrated from the Republic of Belarus in 1993, recently celebrated his birthday while participating on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip with Hillel. Below is his bar mitzvah speech.
First and foremost, I want to thank Rabbi Jake Rubin for helping me throughout this entire process – from our first talks back in October and bringing up this idea, to helping me solidify my [Hebrew] name choice on the bus 20 miles from Gaza, to meeting with me, Aharon and Mikhail to help us learn this aliyah portion. Secondly, I want to congratulate Aharon and Mikhail on this milestone and thank them for sharing it with me. Finally, I want to thank all of you on Birthright Bus 860 for supporting me in this endeavor. I wouldn’t be doing this without you, and there are many reasons for that.
My family emigrated from the “free” Republic of Belarus in 1993. My parents, at that time, had spent 28 of their 30 years living under Soviet, secular rule, where the only expression of religion that was allowed anywhere was anti-Semitism. We moved as refugees with the help of the Jewish Federation but knew nothing of Judaism except the horrors of the Holocaust and the pride of the Jewish people.
As a kid, I celebrated Chanukah with my family (most of the eight nights) and Passover at my aunt’s house when we could make it. When I turned 12, my friends started having bar mitzvahs, and only at that time did my parents bring up the idea of such an event to me. A 13 year old kid has a bar mitzvah for one reason – cash money. Still, I knew I started late in the game, so we found a private tutor and set up lessons with one of my friends. While I tried to study, slowly but diligently, he slacked off and his mother began to study with our tutor at the same time as me. Needless to say, this all got me nowhere and after several months and little progress, my parents and I pulled the plug.
I began to embrace the rebel character of the non-bar mitzvahed Jewish teenager. I was different, an anomaly, and my outer shell sense of humor laughed it off and took it in stride. But secretly, I was probably more comfortable at a Catholic Mass than an Orthodox Jewish service. Probably even more comfortable at a Mass than a Reform service at Hillel.
While I laughed it off on the outside, inside I was quietly embarrassed that I was the only one who didn’t know Hebrew, didn’t know the prayers or songs or could barely follow along with the service. At a Christmas Mass with my girlfriend, I blamed my ignorance of their traditions on being Jewish and it was completely understood. Even when I went to shul with my Orthodox cousin in New York over several summers, I could almost blame my ignorance and ineptness on being “Reform” and laughing it off. But what then could I use as an excuse if I’d go to a relaxed Hillel service?
I’ve been very quiet in the JewVA community because I just wasn’t brought up with the traditions and songs and camps like everyone else. And when it passed me by, I was too embarrassed to say that it really mattered to me and then too embarrassed to join in when I was offered opportunities. I honestly think that in terms of Judaism, I have, up until now, lived the life of an illiterate person who has hid his problem from everyone else by saying that he doesn’t want to read or by avoiding situations where he’d have to read.
This trip showed me, for the first time, that there is much less judgment and stratification in Judaism than I thought -- or at least on the Hillel, Taglit and college level. I was moved by an allegory during the first “alternative” service -– the message was that regardless of our religiosity or attire, we are all Jews on the same level. When I was asked to picture a Jew, I would picture a Chassidic Jew, or my Orthodox cousin or others like him who immediately joined in the songs that everyone sang during the first parts of the service. But today I realize that I am a Jew, as much as any of you, and I have never been prouder of this fact or more grateful for this label. I am grateful for this realization and grateful for your acceptance which, I think, is proven by your attendance right now.
I did not read the Torah today, and I can’t read Hebrew. I know the "Shema," "Oseh Shalom" (in harmony), the King David song, the prayers for the wine and challah, for Chanukah candles and Shabbos candles. I know three or four words in Yiddish, the number "two" (shtein) and a few dirty phrases in Hebrew. I am still very much that illiterate man. But I am no longer hiding it, and for this fact I thank the Birthright trip, Hillel, and everyone who participated in the service today and all of the rest of you who I’ve shared these past 10 days with.
This is why I have undertaken a bar mitzvah ceremony today. Not for money -– I won’t see a cent. And not for any presents -– I don’t want any. Not for community rejoicing and family pride -– my family is happy, but they’re more excited about me just being in Israel. And not for the bar mitzvah party -– however raging, Kabbalistic and “Totally Awesome” it will be. I am having a bar mitzvah today to take one more step out of my Jewish illiteracy and to tangibly dedicate myself to this quest. No more facades of false humor or pretending not to care. I care, and have cared very much, about my Jewish identity and about how lucky I am to be a Jew –-and this trip has reinforced the importance of Judaism in my life.
I am very lucky to be here. I am the grandson of Russian Holocaust survivors who had dangerously close calls with death camps. Though religiously illiterate, I’ve always had a firm and constantly reaffirmed belief in God and am a strong believer in fate -– that everything happens for a reason. I would never take the opportunity to go back in time because I’d be too worried that somehow I’d screw something up -– anything, even the smallest of decisions made on any one day, that would lead to something else and then something else that would change my circumstances entirely.
I like where I’m at now, and I’m lucky to be here. Today is happening for a reason. Standing at the base of the Wall yesterday and feeling the smoothed limestone, squeezing crumpled notes into the cracks and feeling all of the Jews who have been there before me, happened for a reason. Everyone I’ve met, I’ve met for a reason. For this, I thank you all for joining me on this ride and for influencing and changing my life in ways that you and I may both not know and may not ever know. Know, though, that you all have changed my life and affected me. The first way you’ve done this is encouraging me to do this –- to have a bar mitzvah. So thank you.
Hear Simon singing "Oseh Shalom" in Israel.