Irena Sendler

Two young men from Connecticut recently celebrated their b’nai mitzvah in a special way – dedicated to Righteous Gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust.

Joshua Genn of Greenwich, and Adam Ehrman-Shapiro of Litchfield, chose to participate in the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous’ (JFR) Bar/Bat Mitzvah Twinning Program.

When Joshua was preparing for his Oct. 9, 2006, bar mitzvah during Sukkot at Congregation Agudath Sholom in Stamford, he began investigating ways to make his bar mitzvah more meaningful.

Joshua, a seventh-grade student at the Westchester/Fairfield Hebrew Academy, read through descriptions of many Righteous Gentiles on the JFR Web site and found them to be fascinating.

“I liked Irena Sendler,” he said. “Even though she was not Jewish, she got people out of the Warsaw Ghetto and smuggled weapons to people.”

The entry for Sendler on the JFR Web site notes that she was a health worker who had access to the Warsaw Ghetto and led hundreds of Jewish children out of the ghetto to safe hiding places. Sendler, a member of the Polish underground, helped smuggle children (sometimes sedated) in potato sacks and coffins. She was eventually arrested, imprisoned and sentenced to death in October 1943 – but she was saved when members of the Polish underground bribed one of the Germans to stop the execution. She is currently in her 90s, lives in Warsaw, Poland, and reportedly doesn’t think of herself as a hero: “I want the Jewish community to know that there was a resistance and a spirit among the Jews in the ghetto.” 
Joshua reported that friends came up to him to say, “We think we’ll do a twinning bar mitzvah as well!”

Joshua’s parents, Ireland-born Alan and England-born Michelle, were pleased with Joshua’s decision to support JFR.

“Even ‘Schindler’s List’ didn’t highlight how many Righteous Gentiles saved Jews. It is a bit of a forgotten cause, and the organization [which supports people who, by definition, are in their 80s and 90s] has a limited time frame and needs immediate help,” said Alan Genn.

Saving One Life
One month after Joshua’s bar mitzvah, Adam Ehrman-Shapiro shared the story of another Righteous Gentile, Vladimir Chernovol, at his Nov. 11, 2006 bar mitzvah at the Chabad of Northwest Connecticut-LitchfieldJewish Community Center. Adam’s mother, Judith, began searching online for organizations so that Adam could “do some type of community service and give back to the community.”

“I was deeply touched by the work and mission of JFR. It is a very Jewish idea – to save one life is to save the whole world,” she said.

This phrase appears on the cover of the personalized invitations that many families participating in the twinning program, including the Ehrman-Shapiro family, choose for their children’s b’nai mitzvah.

The Ehrman-Shapiros have celebrated the b’nai mitzvah of two sons in two years, and both have participated in the JFR twinning program.

“These Righteous Gentiles risked life and limb to save our people in Europe with full knowledge that they were risking their lives and the lives of their families,” Judith said.

Chernovol was a Ukrainian teacher out for a walk in 1942 when he encountered Gregory Lantsman, a Jewish pilot in the Soviet Army whose plane was shot down over the Ukraine. Chernovol learned that Lantsman was Jewish and that the Germans had already killed his family. Chernovol quickly realized that Lantsman would surely be caught and killed. He immediately offered to take him in. Chernovol worked hard to obtain Ukrainian identity papers for Lantsman, but the Germans soon began forcibly taking young Ukrainian men for hard labor. Though Lantsman was selected, he managed to escape and return to Chernovol’s home, where he hid until liberation in May 1944. Chernovol is in his 80s and still lives in the Ukraine.

Adam was pleased with his bar mitzvah and with the twinning program.

Said Adam, an eighth-grader who is home-schooled, “I thought it was a nice thing to do, and my friends came up to me and told me they thought it was cool.”

Following a dinner party and an evening of sports, Adam was back at shul early the next morning to put on his tefillin.

“Adam participates in the Tefilin Bank, where you received a free set of tefillin if you agree to put them on daily,” said his mother.

Both young men and their families agree that participating in the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Program of the JFR enhanced and gave meaning to their b’nai mitzvah.

JFR was created in 1986 to provide financial assistance to non-Jews who risked their lives and often the lives of family members to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust. Today, the JFR supports more than 1,600 aged and needy rescuers in 28 countries, and they run a Holocaust teacher education program for middle and high school teachers and Holocaust center personnel.

Read more