JERUSALEM — Coloured toffees rained down on the bar and bat mitzvah guests of honour and whoops of elation filled the Western Wall plaza as 35 IDF orphans marked their coming of age in a group ceremony in Jerusalem.
Some 100 family members and friends, as well as educators, volunteers, army brass and benefactors, took part in the festive day in late October.
The children hailed from across the country and were brought together by the fact they all lost a parent in the Israel Defence Forces. The event was organized by the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization (IDFWO), which holds a celebration in Jerusalem annually for the coming-of-age children.
The day began with a tour of Ammunition Hill, a gifts ceremony at Aish HaTorah in the Old City, dancing and singing at the Kotel (and tfilin prayers for the boys), and then a gala event with Israeli President Shimon Peres, IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and other supporters at the Jerusalem Theater.
“It’s definitely festive seeing young Jewish kids at the Kotel, these kids who lost a father in the IDF. It makes me feel proud,” said Daniel Tuksar, director of resource development at IDFWO.
Wearing white shirts emblazoned with the numeral 13 for the boys and 12 for the girls, the kids – who also meet up during the year for summer camp in Toronto and holiday-related events in Israel – were obviously excited by the affair.
“It’s just a really fun day, and we get to meet up with our friends,” said Hila Levis, 12, from Rishon Lezion.
But this is a group no one wants to be a part of, unless fate decides otherwise. A sense of sorrow was also very present together with the joy.
“I’m happy to be here. I really like Jerusalem – it gives me a special feeling,” said Shany Aharonov, 12, who lost her father in a Katyusha attack in 2006. “It’s fun to be here with the group, but I also feel a loss.”
Some of the children had already held parties for their friends.
“It’s very emotional to be here with the group,” said Gal Cohen of Binyamina. “I had a party with friends and family, and that was really fun. This is more of a ceremony. It’s also fun, but there’s also sadness.”
IDF Chief Rabbi Rafi Peretz addressed the group with a congratulatory message that reiterated the army’s commitment to the bereaved families.
There are more than 8,000 widows and orphans of the Israeli security forces in all sectors of Israeli life – Druze, Bedouin, Jewish, Christian and Muslim.
“Anashim achim anachnu [we are people who are kinsmen],” Rabbi Peretz said, quoting from the Bible. “This sentence is for everyone. For the Druze and the Bedouin among us. We are brothers. All of us.”
Bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies in Israel are usually hosted by the father of the child. In this case, the IDFWO takes responsibility.
“This ceremony is very emotional. We feel that our husbands didn’t die for nothing and that there is someone standing behind us,” said Rivka Boanish, the mother of 13-year-old Oz. Her late husband, Yitzhak Boanish, was killed in a 2002 ambush in Hebron. He left behind seven children, Oz being the youngest.
“The IDFWO support really encourages us,” Boanish added. “We really are one nation struggling for our existence.”
The rabbi’s words were poignant for the four Toronto guests as well.
“My heart breaks for the families. We know that without the IDF the Jews in Canada wouldn’t be able to live as freely as they do with their heads up. We’re grateful we can be here to celebrate with them,” said Peter Ekstein, an IDFWO benefactor who attended the big day with his wife, Stella.
“Like Rabbi Peretz said, we have a responsibility to take care of one another. That’s why we’re here.”