In 2005, while on a trip to Siberia with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), board member Elaine Berke asked a roomful of Jewish students whether they’d had a bar or bat Mitzvah. Only two raised their hands.

“It’s never too late,” said Elaine, who herself had been bat mitzvahed at age 60. Thus began Elaine’s inspired campaign to bring bar and bat mitzvahs to the isolated Jews of Siberia.

JDC, with the support of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, works in nearly 70 countries to alleviate hunger, rescue Jews from danger and create lasting connections to Jewish life. When in 1988 JDC re-entered the vast region of Siberia, they found that Jewish life had been all but stamped out under communist rule, leaving the remaining 1.3 million Jews lacking in even the most basic knowledge of Jewish culture, religion, history or community life. JDC’s efforts towards Jewish renewal have included education and community-building programs across the former Soviet Union — including Elaine’s bar and bat mitzvah program.

Each year for more than a decade, about 50 kids and their families travel from across Siberia — distant Jewish enclaves like Krasnoyarsk, Kansk, Novosibirsk, Omsk, Tomsk, Ulan-Ude, and Barnaul — to gather for a weeklong retreat, learning Jewish traditions anew. The week culminates in a massive bar and bat Mitzvah celebration. “It was amazing how we became a real community during a week in retreat,” said past participant Dasha Mazanik, b’nai mitzvah class of 2007. Participants return home with a new Jewish connection and pride that they share with others — and in that way, begin knitting a Jewish community back together.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia supports programming that strengthens Jewish life all over the world. To donate, click here. And if, like Elaine Berke, you’re inspired to create a legacy project of your own, contact our Director of Planned Giving and Endowments at or 215.832.0572.


Photograph courtesy of JDC.