Circle Of Friends
“New Americans” celebrate freedom with a group bar/bat mitzvah.
When Julie Grodin ascends to the bimah at Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park on June 15, she’ll be marking a milestone not only for herself but for a dozen or so friends, all senior adults from the Former Soviet Union (FSU).
Grodin of Huntington Woods is program director of Circle of Friends, a social group of New Americans and synagogue members that has been meeting at Beth Shalom every week for the past 15 years.
She never had a bat mitzvah. And neither did any of the foreign-born members of the Circle of Friends. They will be honored with a group aliyah as Grodin’s husband, Rob, reads the maftir (the concluding) portion of the Torah portion.
Circle of Friends members came of age when Jewish practice in the FSU was strictly forbidden. They grew up knowing they were Jews, but knowing very little about Jewish religion or traditional practices.
“The Soviet regime denied this population of Jews the right to participate in Jewish traditions and holidays, and deprived them of a feeling of belonging to the Jewish people,” said Joanna Berger of West Bloomfield. She and fellow Beth Shalom member Ellie Slovis of Bloomfield Hills started Circle of Friends in 1998 at the request of Judge Mark Goldsmith, who was then congregation president. They had strong backing from Rabbi David Nelson, who was concerned that local churches were proselytizing among the newcomers.
Creating Jewish Identity
A first wave of Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union arrived in Detroit in the 1970s; many more came in the early 1990s. Many were resettled in Oak Park, near Beth Shalom.
“We felt it was important to reach out, to help them feel comfortable in the synagogue environment,” Berger said. “We started Circle of Friends to strengthen, re-establish or create their Jewish identity, and help them proudly join the world Jewish community.”
Circle of Friends initiated many programs for “New Americans” of all ages. The Sunday morning discussion group is the only ongoing program.
Every Sunday at 10:30 a.m., Circle of Friends meets at Beth Shalom for English conversation on a variety of topics, including Jewish traditions and practice, current events and memories of members’ early years. The conversation helps them with English — after more than 20 years here, many are still not fluent — but the purpose of the group is to make them feel part of the Jewish community. Over time, the members, both American-born and New Americans, have become close friends.
Yuriy Mushkin, 82, of Oak Park, came to the U.S. in 1993 with his wife, Inna, 82. Both had been pediatricians. He said he’s grateful for the opportunity Circle of Friends gives him to speak English and to get to know Americans.
“We didn’t work here,” he said. “We knew only our relatives and Russian friends.”
He says the discussion can get heated at times when people disagree, but it doesn’t affect friendships.
Circle of Friends members have become members of the congregation, and many attend Shabbat services regularly. Klara Shapiro, 82, of Oak Park is in the shul kitchen every Friday morning, helping to prepare the Kiddush.
Circle of Friends has sponsored two benefit concerts, raising funds to support victims of terror in Israel. For several years, members baked hundreds of hamentashen to sell at the Beth Shalom Purim carnival. Some of the women are renowned for their rugelach, and they baked a large tray of the pastries that sold for $80 at a silent auction fundraiser. Others made a large quilt that hangs in the synagogue hallway, as a way of expressing their thanks.
The Jewish Federation was so impressed by the program that it awarded Circle of Friends a three-year Fisher Foundation grant in 1999. The Harvard University Pluralism Project, which documents the changing religious landscape of the United States, included material from Circle of Friends in its collection in 2002.
Grodin stepped in as director 10 years ago after returning from a teacher exchange program in Russia.
Last fall, she asked Beth Shalom’s Cantor Sam Greenbaum to talk to the group about what is involved in reading Torah. He realized no one in the group had had a bar or bat mitzvah, so, he asked if they’d like to have a group celebration.
Dora Kershtein of Royal Oak transliterated the Hebrew blessings into Russian characters, and the group began practicing with the cantor.
Isaac Trabskiy, 80, of Oak Park, who came to the U.S. in 2000 from St. Petersburg, gave a big thumbs up when asked about being called to the Torah for the first time.
Asya Komarov, 66, of Walled Lake, says she feels a little strange celebrating a bat mitzvah at her age because she knows it’s something meant for 13 year olds. But she appreciates the fact that she can do it at all. “I’m happy to be part of a Jewish community where we can speak about anything,” she said.
Some native American members of Circle of Friends will join the group on the bimah, including Millie Goldberg, 75, and Esther Hammer, 81, both of Oak Park.
“A bar mitzvah is a symbol of freedom,” said Asya Dolbir, 71, of Oak Park, whose grandfather was a cantor. Her six grandchildren all had bar or bat mitzvah celebrations in the United States. She hopes they will join her to celebrate hers on June 15.
Joanna Berger says the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony is a good example of what Circle of Friends set out to accomplish. “We have given the New American members an awareness of Jewish issues and Jewish responsibility, and we have become close friends.”
By Barbara Lewis, Special to the Jewish News