Toronto resident Max Benaim is making a difference in the lives of Israeli children.
For the past 10 years, the 66-year-old Sephardic community organizer has spearheaded the B’nai Mitzvah BaKotel program, which sponsors bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies for disadvantaged and at-risk children in Israel.
On Oct. 19, in honour of the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, 100 children who are about to enter Jewish adulthood will be connected with a child who died in the Holocaust.
“These kids should have some kind of connection to those who died without, unfortunately, the opportunity to have their bar or bat mitzvah. I thought what would be best is to connect each with a child who perished in the Holocaust. Each of our children will be given a siddur, wherein it will be mentioned that the bar or bat mitzvah will be connected with a particular child of the Holocaust. We hope they will continue to respect that child, and have this name to bless them every year of their life. The living kids should never forget that 1.5 million children perished in the Holocaust and did not have the opportunity of having a bar or bat mitzvah. That’s the reason I do it,” explained Benaim.
This year’s program will, for the first time, include children from an orphanage.
“We selected children from the north to the south of Israel: Beit Shemesh, Ofakim, Kiryat Shmona, Kadima, Or Yehuda, Haifa, Ashkelon and the Neve Landy Orphanage. Each of them is allowed to bring two guests. Usually, it’s the mother and father. Sometimes, the father may not be alive, or may be in jail, so they can then bring a sibling. We expect about 290 persons. As well, a delegation from Toronto, Paris and the U.S. will be joining us for the special day in Jerusalem,” said Benaim.
The program is put on by the Estrella Benaim z’l Foundation, which was founded in memory of Benaim’s sister, Estrella, who was tragically struck and killed by a car when she was seven years old. Estrella’s legacy continues to live on through the foundation that bears her name, and which has undertaken various projects in Canada and Israel, with a focus on helping disadvantaged Jewish youth.
“I started this bnei mitzvah program because my sister did not have the opportunity to have a bat mitzvah, and to keep her name alive. I decided to do something for orphans and the underprivileged – for those people who are not able to celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah,” said Benaim.
The day will commence with the families arriving at the Kotel on chartered buses.
“We cater a breakfast for everyone on site of the Kotel, then we move into the religious services. Everybody is welcomed by the Rabbi of the Western Wall, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch. Following services, we travel by bus to the Tayelet Haas Promenade.
“I have English-and Hebrew-speaking guides, drummers and balloons, while everybody gathers to dance. From there, we take everyone to the Ramat Rahel Kibbutz Hotel for cocktails and a festive sit-down luncheon with live music,” explained Benaim.
Gifts will be given to each bar and bat mitzvah child.
“This year, we are going to give each child a gift certificate that they can only use in a certain store that sells youth clothing. We have experienced that if we give them money, sometimes the parents take the money for whatever they want,” said Benaim.
Raising funds is essential to the program’s success. Most of money is raised from the Sephardic community in Toronto.
“To sponsor a child is $850. The money that is collected will fund the entire day, including the purchase of tfillin, tallit and siddurs that are personalized to each participant with their names embroidered.
“I do it out of my heart. I do it because I love Israel, and to keep the neshamah of my sister alive. You must respect the 613 mitzvot in the Torah forever. That’s the open door to Judaism. By becoming bar and bat mitzvah, you are responsible for your actions – until the day you die,” concluded Benaim.
For more information, visit ebfoundation.ca.