By Jackie Shimshoni
We offer lots of different educational programs here at the Holocaust Center; so many, in fact, that even people who are familiar with us and what we do are often surprised when they realize that there are currently about 16 different programs we run simultaneously (and our many events count as just one program!).
One of those programs which recently came under my purview is the “Twinning” program. The full name is Remembering the Children: Bar/Bat Mitzvah Twinning, and it is a program where we work with teens who are about to become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah to pair them up with a child who was unable to have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah of their own because of the Holocaust–more often than not, a child who perished.
In the past we had teens come in and shuffle through giant books and websites full of children to try and pick someone; however, from what I know about pre-teen attention span and research ability, this didn’t seem like the most impactful way to go through this process–there are just so many stories, it seems like it would be overwhelming. We recently revamped the way we do this program a bit, so the process now looks like this:
- Family fills out this form indicating their interest, ideally at least 6 weeks out from the Bar/Bat Mitzvah date, and makes a $36 donation.
- I get in touch with the family to have the teen having the Bar/Bat Mitzvah to fill out this questionnaire.
- Using a combination of questionnaire answers and available resources, I put together a document with information about a few children that I think may be a good match. Usually I try to think about shared names, birthdates, countries of origin, though sometimes there are just really special stories that I want to share with the teen we’re working with in hopes it may touch them. I also include some additional information relating to each child’s story to help build context (here’s an example). Doc gets sent back to parent and/or teen.
- The Bar/Bat Mitzvah reads the stories of each of these children and selects the one with whom they identify most. Their parent contacts me to let me know which child the teen would like to honor.
- (Optional) The Bar/Bat Mitzvah may come in with or without a parent to discuss further. We talk about the child (or children, if there was any difficulty making a decision), and what the teen connected with about that child. We have additional books and pictures to illustrate life for European children before and during the War to build context. If I know the chosen Twin ahead of time, I also bring out references that relate to their individual experience (such as their country of origin, ghetto where they lived, camp where they were killed, etc.). I also take them around the Center to view our permanent collection and current exhibit.
- I make a certificate that is sent to the teen’s synagogue to be presented during the Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony. Usually, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah dedicates a portion of their D’var Torah (a speech all Bar/Bat Mitzvahs make sharing the insights on the Torah portion they are reading during the service) to the child, connecting them with their own life experience, Torah portion and/or what they learned throughout the process of becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah.
We changed the process to the one above so that teens would have the ability to do a close, research-informed read on a few children, rather than get overwhelmed by sheer numbers. So far, it seems to be working as intended–the feedback I have received from participating families has been that they and their children go through the review process together and find themselves deeply moved by each story. This, I think, speaks to the true meaning of Twinning–giving each child a voice and a platform to be heard loudly, clearly, and individually.
That being said, in order to do the process above, there was a lot of research on my end to prep information about the many children that could be “Twinned” with. One of these pieces was going through the book French Children of the Holocaust–a behemoth of a book that is nearly 2,000 pages long and filled with pictures and information about over 1,500 children lost during the Holocaust.
Most days at the Holocaust Center are, for me, really enjoyable and uplifting, but I think the day I paged through this book was my saddest one I’ve experienced in this job so far. So many young faces, full of joy and hope, whose lives were ended much too soon–all because of senseless hatred.
Over the course of the research, there were a few children whose pictures and stories really called out to me, who, because of their ages, don’t fall neatly into the category of Twinning (teens pretty consistently want to honor someone who is close to their own age). It’s impossible for me to ever give a platform to each and every one of the 1.5 million children who were murdered–though I wish I could–but I figure in today’s blog post I’ll give one to these three.
If you know any teenagers of Bar/Bat Mitzvah age, I hope you’ll refer them to this program so we can do the same for more.