Why the FRS-Polotsk Twinning is so meaningful

By Jonathan Clingman, April 2014

‘I wish the twinning project had existed when it was my Bar Mitzvah

‘What is a Bar Mitzvah?’ This was the question that not even the most experienced of FRS’s youth leaders could give a satisfactory answer to when I discussed it with them last summer. I had been tasked with setting in motion the Polotsk Bnei Mitzvahprogramme of 2013-2014, and the eager, bright-eyed new generation were waiting for me to enthuse them about a process which, apparently, I poorly understood myself. I had already failed to engage the disheartened current group (whose ceremony earlier in the year had been postponed precisely for the reason that there was a lack of understanding of what the Bnei Mitzvah process was all about). Back in England, it’s assumed that you’re going to have a Bar Mitzvah even before your parents are born. You benefit from a supportive family and community, a rabbi, teachers, years of Jewish education in a programme with even more years’ worth of experience and development behind it. But these are people for whom none of this exists, people who are the first generation and among the first individuals ever to go through the Bar Mitzvah process.

And yet, two young members of our twinned community in Polotsk, Belarus, Dasha Lobkovich and Boris Itkin, did just that: found within themselves the motivation not only to come to Sunday School every week, to learn to read their portion and prayers in a foreign alphabet, but to engage with and try to understand the process, so that eight months later, on Saturday 12th April, they performed as confidently, fluently and with as much care and sensitivity as any pupil I’ve taught back in England. I’m extremely proud of them and it’s been an honour to have played the small part that I have in getting them to reach this stage.

Even since I discovered the project a year and a half ago, progress has been at an incredible rate. On that day, the seemingly impossible happened: in a country where religion is severely restricted, families are often fragmented and real community is all but nonexistent, people of all generations have come together to support two people on their big day and to celebrate a common heritage and identity. More than anything else, this project has shown me just how much people can achieve when we come together. I’ve never seen the little community centre in Polotsk as packed as it was on that day: with Boris and Dasha’s parents and even grandparents, friends, madrichim, all their teachers from Sunday School, plus people from the Orthodox community and Polotsk Cultural Centre, who it’s pretty special to see all united in one place, and even some twenty representatives of FRS who had travelled to Belarus specially. It’s not just a small group in Polotsk: this is a community that everyone’s a part of.

Here’s just one example. The contingent from London consisted of five 14-year-olds who have recently been through the Bnei Mitzvah process themselves, and their families. The Bnei Mitzvah ‘twins’ and their counterparts in Polotsk write to each other and build up a relationship. The English twins each donate a proportion of the money they receive as presents to Polotsk, and they also each do a project to raise money and awareness. And now, twins British and Belarusian finally meet face to face. In a day, a year and a half of anticipation is fulfilled. They celebrate the Belarusians’ Bnei Mitzvah together. Long-lasting friendships are forged in an instant. Lives have been changed by this, I have no doubt. Mine included.

Back in the summer I was trying to explain what becoming Bar Mitzvah was all about. It’s about being an adult member of the community, isn’t it? Being responsible for your actions. Developing the community. It’s not the end of the journey, they always say to you, it’s the beginning. Watching the Ten Commandments being read together, English twin in Hebrew and English, Polotsk twin in Russian, you feel that these aren’t just being read: these people are already fulfilling them, each becoming a cornerstone of the FRS-Polotsk community of the future. Jeremy and Abi have agreed to teach Boris and Dasha the Ten Commandments in Hebrew. And then they’ll teach the next generation. These Bnei Mitzvah will, I’m sure, be the first of many, many more, ever bigger and more developed, and when they happen, I for one will be there. I’ll carry on translating emails; teaching them via Skype. I wish this project had existed when it was my Bar Mitzvah. It’s transforming so many lives both here and in Belarus, and I’m proud to be a part of it.