By Sam Sokol/JNS.org
JERUSALEM- Dozens of orphans of fallen Israeli soldiers, and the son of an American serviceman who died in Afghanistan, celebrated their bar and bat mitzvahs in Jerusalem Thursday in a mass ceremony conducted by the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization.
The children, between ages 12 and 13, met with the Israeli Army’s Chief Rabbi on Thursday morning, ahead of the event, to receive pairs of tefillin, leather boxes containing scriptural passages that Jewish men wear on their arms and heads during prayer when they reach adulthood.
The organization, which provides support for army widows and orphans, makes an “extra effort to be there at important junctions in the lives of children who lost parents, and one of these is the bar mitzvah year,” said Shlomi Nahumson, director of the group’s youth department, at a celebratory concert for the young orphans.
“A child should be able to begin this journey with the hand of their father on their shoulder and with their presence when they make their choices on becoming adults,” Nahumson said. “There’s no way we can bring their fathers back to them. But we can put our hands on their shoulders, so they know they're not alone, and that we appreciate the sacrifices their parents made.”
As multicolored strobe lights illuminated the room during the evening gala, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin addressed the youngsters, accompanied by Chief of the General Staff Gabi Eizenkot, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and other senior officials.
“I know that all of you will continue to be a source of hope to make the world a better and more peaceful place,” Rivlin said. “We will accompany you always as you continue to grow and make your families and the people of Israel proud.”
While the event was billed as a bar/bat mitzvah ceremony, not all of the kids were Jewish. However, among those clapping and laughing as an IDF choir sang classic Israeli pop songs was Asool Naserladen from the Druze village of Daliyat Eal-Karmel.
Asool, now 12, was only 4-years-old when her father Lutfe, an infantryman in the Golani Brigade, was killed in the line of duty.
She recalled his laugh, how he would buy her presents and “when he took me to Luna Park.” Since losing him, she feels that “this organization is my home. I feel that everyone loves me and thinks about me,” she said.
Among the Israeli children was American A.J. Voelke, 13, from Springfield, Virginia.
Slight and blond, A.J., an avid sportsman, worried constantly about his father when he went overseas and recalled how sad he felt when his father deployed for the fifth time to Afghanistan.
U.S. Army Maj. Paul C. Voelke, 36, was killed June 22, 2012, when he was run over by a military vehicle in an accident on the American base in Afghanistan.
Describing her initial reaction to the news, Voelke's wife, Tami, said, “It was kind of like in the movies when officers come to your house and you see them standing there and you know what it means. They [Military officials] asked me to come in and I said, ‘No.’ And then I finally got to my senses and said, ‘Come on in.’ They brought in a chaplain and then life changed.”
“It was the worst day of my life,” A.J. remembered.
Connected with the Israeli widows and orphans organization by an American group with a similar mission, the Voelkes were invited to take part in the bar mitzvah ceremony, an experience that A.J. said was incredibly meaningful.
Staying with an Israeli army widow during their visit has been incredibly special, Traci Voelke explained, saying she felt an “instant connection.” Visiting Israel during the High Holidays has been “very spiritual” and sharing experiences and pictures have “helped us all through this big event for A.J.”
“It feels pretty good to be bar mitzvahed in Israel with children who know what I’m going through,” A.J. said. “It’s been pretty great.”