A couple of years ago we had to decide where to have our son’s bar mitzvah. We wanted to find a place that would be meaningful to him and certainly Israel offers more than its fair share of possible venues. With a synagogue on every corner as well as incredible historical sites such as the Western Wall, Robinson’s Arch, Masada, Katzrin, Tzippori and numerous other options throughout the country – the possibilities were endless.
But after much thought and research, we opted for a small, little known, synagogue about 1 kilometer from our home in Ra’ananna. It wasn’t even the shul (synagogue) we go to regularly, in fact it wasn’t even a synagogue that was used regularly by any community. It was a synagogue that stands in the center of the Amit High School Campus at Kfar Batya. So, why here?
Let me tell you a story that I read in Amit Magazine by Shifra Paikin.
For hundreds of years a thriving Jewish congregation dating back to 1645 prospered in Leeuwarden, a city in the northern Netherlands and capital of the province of Frieseland. Jewish emigrants and refugees from Germany, Poland, Lithuania and Alsace and enjoyed full religious liberty, participating in all aspects of community life. Jewish thought, philosophy and learning flourished in the city, giving Leeuwarden the nickname “Jerusalem of the North”. The pride of the community was its beautiful synagogue, built in 1805, richly adorned with finely worked ritual objects, silver Torah crowns, breastplates, finials, etc.
After the Nazis took over the country in May 1940, Jews were gradually isolated from the social and economic life of the city. Later in 1942, the deportations began and there were local gentiles from all segments of the population who risked their lives to save the 700-seat synagogue and it contents. In a unique show of support, the building was sold to the local municipal council. The massive chandelier was removed and together with the furniture and ritual ornaments the items were buried under the floorboards.
Old desks and mattresses were brought into the building, in its new guise as a storage house for furniture. A local official, along with the state’s chief archivist incorporated three of the Torah scrolls in the Judaica collection of the former University of Franeker in the state archive in Leeuwarden. Mr. J Offers, the minister of Berlikum, a village 12 miles north of Leeuwarden in which no Jew had ever lived, brought another three scrolls into his church there.
The torah scrolls remained concealed in the church until fears of a Nazi raid prompted Mr. Offers to move the scrolls to the farmhouse of Bindert Bosma, where members of the Dutch resistance were hiding. There they were stored under the mattresses and they were never discovered. Following liberation the residents of the town paraded through the center of the Berlikum in celebration of victory with the torah scrolls held high -as a symbol of freedom.
But the Jewish community of Leeuwarden was virtually wiped out in the Holocaust. 75% of the country’s Jews were murdered, and only 70 survivors could be counted of a population that had numbered 731 in 1941. A few of survivors returned to the city. The words “Hayeled Enenu” (the child is no more) posted on a sign on the wall of the community’s now deserted Jewish school underscored the tragedy that decimated this small, Jewish community.
Fast forward 20 years. In 1965, Dr. Nathan Dasberg, was the then-director of Amit Kfar Batya. He also happened to be the brother of the chief rabbi of Leeuwarden, Simon Dasberg, of blessed memory, who perished in the Holocaust in Bergen Belsen. Along with other survivors Dr. Dasberg was instrumental in bringing the six torah scrolls that had survived the Nazi occupation to the youth village in Ra’ananna. The interior of the synagogue including the Aron kodesh (the Ark), with the eternal light, the luchot, the bima, the two glass leaded windows the seat of the chief rabbi and pulpit, chandeliers, candlesticks, tzedakah boxes, etc were all transferred to the AMIT Kfar Bayta Kraushar synagogue. Since that time, this place of worship has been thriving in its new life servicing the needs of youth who come here from around the world to study Torah, including our son, Eitan, who attends this school.
The synagogue serves as a link between the historical Jewish communities of western Europe and the proud Jewish future in Israel. It equally serves as a living museum of a community that perished but yet lives on by servicing the spiritual needs of eager students. Decorated with its rich ritual contents, the synagogue stands as a testament to the strength and resilience of the Jewish people. And personally for my family, – it symbolizes even more.
Both of our son’s paternal grandparents were Dutch, and his grandmother Ada, of blessed memory was a prisoner in Bergen Belsen (the same concentration camp where the Chief Rabbi of Leeuwarden was imprisoned). Like the ritual items and decorative features of the historical Leeuwarden synagogue, Eitan’s paternal grandfather was forced into hiding in Holland during the war, after both his parents were taken from him at the tender age of 8 and sent to their deaths at Auschwitz.
A Bar mitzvah marks the moment where a young boy crosses the border from childhood to adulthood. However, before he can know where he is headed, he must first understand from where he came which is why most children in preparation for their bar and bat mitzvahs will often study their family roots or shoreshim. For our son, Eitan, it seemed more than fitting that this little known Dutch synagogue, quietly located a few blocks away in Ra’ananna, complete with its rich legacy and which, coincidentally, (or as some might say – “beshert” – or “meant to be”) is the same place where he studies and prays daily during the school year, should be the selected venue where he celebrates the achievement of reaching bar mitzvah. Celebrating there would be a meaningful testament to not only his family roots but to his future and that of the Jewish people. Standing on the bimah freely, in this restored synagogue, reciting his bar mitzvah portion (which incidently his Dutch grandfather had taught him) was, for me one of the most joyous moments of my life. Considering the history of this very special place of worship and its story of survival, it certainly felt that prayer in this synagogue had an even stronger sense of meaning.
An interesting tangent to this story -while a prisoner at Bergen Belsen, The Chief Rabbi of Leeuwarden, Simon Dasberg, prepared a young boy for his bar mitzvah using a miniature Torah scroll from Leeuwarden that he had smuggled in. When the boy completed his bar mitzvah, the rabbi gave him the scroll as a gift and made him promise to the tell the story.
The boy, Joachim Joseph, survived and grew up to become a professor of planetary physics at Tel Aviv U. Among other things Dr. Joseph also worked on one of the experiments later carried into space by the shuttle Columbia, on the same voyage that Ilan Ramon would participate on. Before the shuttle departed, Dr. Joseph handed the miniature scroll to Ilan Ramon, of blessed memory. Ramon remarked that “This little safer Torah in particular shows the ability of the Jewish people to survive everything, even the darkest of times and to always look forward with hope and faith for the future”. And although the miniature Torah scroll from Leeuwarden did not survive the shuttle tragedy, the inspiring story of the scrolls, the synagogue and the Jewish people, lives on in perpetuity.
And that message of strength, hope, survival and personal responsibility is one that we wanted to give to our son.
Source: An article by Shifra Paikin for Amit magazine which provided much of the historical detail of this story. Special thanks to my dear cousin, Debbie Moed an active volunteer for Amit, who told me about this story.
Elisa Moed is the Founder and CEO of Travelujah (http://www.travelujah.com) a Christian social network focused on travel to the Holy Land. Based in Israel, Travelujah provides a vibrant online community with over 450 pages of Christian-interest articles, user and expert blogs, travel tours and planning services for people interested in connecting with or traveling to the Holy Land.