A bar or bat mitzvah brings families together in a special way. In recent months, three Temple Emanu-El members with interfaith backgrounds created new family traditions as they demonstrated their commitment through this age-old rite of passage. A father and son celebrated a joint b’nai mitzvah, and the son of a Jewish mother raised in the former Soviet Union became the first bar mitzvah in his family for 75 years.
A father-son b’nai mitzvah
Before Gary Schwartzberg and his son Grey shared their b’nai mitzvah on May 6, they underwent a conversion ceremony, together with Grey’s 8-year-old brother, Max. The boys had a Jewish upbringing, says Schwartzberg, but the conversion was necessary “because my mother wasn’t Jewish.”
Schwartzberg was raised in Texas in the Jewish tradition by his Jewish father and non-Jewish mother. He didn’t attend Hebrew school, but recalls attending synagogue, lighting Hanukkah candles, and celebrating Passover with the family.
“I wasn’t converting from any other belief. To me it was more about confirming my identity as a Jew,” he says.
Schwartzberg, a metallurgical engineer, has lived in the Tucson area for 21 years with his non-Jewish wife, Gina. Before marrying, they agreed to raise their children as Jews. “It was about teaching them responsibility; doing the right thing,” says Schwartzberg. “That’s what Judaism is to me.”
After their sons were born, the couple explored Judaism together, taking a “Taste of Judaism” class at Temple Emanu-El. “She liked it, and they kept inviting us to come back,” says Schwartzberg.
“I found Judaism to be very tolerant, welcoming and accepting,” says Gina Schwartzberg. “It seemed to me one of the most open religions. They make you feel like you belong right away.”
Interfaith families and conversions are part of modern Judaism, representing between 50 and 70 percent of today’s Jewish families, says Temple Emanu-El Senior Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon. “Both these bar mitzvahs illustrate the incredible opportunity to bring people into Judaism in a meaningful way with integrity and great learning.”
Five years ago, the Schwartzbergs became members of Temple Emanu-El. “When Grey started Hebrew school, my wife and I learned Hebrew at the same time,” says Schwartzberg.
As he became absorbed in Grey’s Judaic studies, the idea of having a father/son bar mitzvah occurred to him. “I never had the opportunity,” he says. “I felt it was something I needed to do for myself. My son gave me the motivation.”
“I said, ‘It sounds like a great idea,’” says Grey. “We would sit down and study the prayers. It was very nice to sit together. I felt like it brought us even closer.”
A father-son bar mitzvah was a new experience for Cohon. “I’d never seen it in almost 40 years as a cantor and rabbi,” he says. “We had to figure out the best way to do this. There was no playbook.”
Preparation became intense in the six months before the bar mitzvah, says Schwartzberg. “If it wasn’t for my wife’s support, I don’t know if I’d have been able to finish it.” He had twice-weekly tutoring sessions with Cantor Marjorie Hochberg, weekly classes with Rabbi Batsheva Appel, head of Temple’s Kurn Religious School, and a two-hour class with Cohon every Sunday to study the service, Torah portions and prayers, and Hebrew pronunciation. He also took a Hebrew Marathon class, to learn to read Hebrew. In addition, Schwartzberg and his wife took a “Practical Judaism” class with Appel.
When father and son stood together at the bimah, it was “amazing,” says Schwartzberg. “Nothing I’ve ever done in my life made me feel so awestruck. I started to get emotional when my son was reading from the Torah. When I looked at my wife, her eyes were welling up – there was so much pride.”
For Grey, reading the prayers in Hebrew with his father was most memorable. He says, “After all the preparation, I felt like it all came down to this moment, and it was worth it.”
After the service, Schwartzberg says, several fathers came to him and expressed interest in having an adult bar mitzvah or a father/son celebration. “Just like my son gave me the motivation, I gave them the motivation.”
He and his wife strongly support their sons’ continuing involvement with Temple Emanu-El. She says, “It’s important that they continue their education, surrounded by people who have the same goals and aspirations and values.”
Reestablishing Jewish connections
Brian Belakovsky’s Feb. 4 bar mitzvah signified a new beginning after three-quarters of a century marked by Soviet persecution and family friction.
Brian’s mother, Anjelina Belakovskaia, was raised in a Jewish family in Odessa, Ukraine. A chess grandmaster and leader of the U.S. Olympic chess team in 1994, ’96 and ’98, she’d come to the United States in 1991 to play in the World Open Chess Tournament, a month before the Soviet Union collapsed, and decided to stay. She met her non-Jewish husband, Lawrence Bernstein, at New York’s Marshall Chess Club in 2000, while she was pursuing a master’s degree in financial mathematics at New York University.
The couple married in 2003 and moved to Tucson, where Belakovskaia works at the University of Arizona and the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University, lecturing on global financial engineering, risk management and derivatives, as well as teaching chess at the Tucson Jewish Community Center.
Bernstein, who owns a marketing and advertising company, is a Catholic with deep Jewish roots. His Jewish father, the grandson of a rabbi, married a Catholic woman, whom his mother rejected. When Bernstein married a Jewish woman, they agreed to raise their children as Jews. “My grandfather and father had ‘lost’ a child to Christianity,” he says. “We decided to ‘rebalance the books’ by raising our three children Jewish.”
For Belakovskaia, being Jewish in the United States meant being able to practice her faith openly for the first time.
“My family is Jewish, but my father didn’t have a bar mitzvah,” she explains. “When I grew up, we were not really allowed to go to synagogue. You had to believe in the Communist party — no religion. My grandma tried to celebrate Passover; she sent me to the synagogue for matzah, and the police stopped me.”
Belakovskaia attended synagogues in New York, but never experienced a sense of belonging. “I tried to find a place where it would feel just right,” she says. “That happened with Temple [Emanu-El].”
The family joined Temple Emanu-El in 2014, when Brian began preparing for his bar mitzvah. “They are very welcoming,” says Belakovskaia. “The kids love it. In Tucson, I always say we have three homes: our home, Temple Emanu-El and the JCC.”
Bernstein says he feels perfectly at home with both Judaism and Catholicism. “I’m still Catholic, but I love being a member of Temple Emanu-El. I’m Jewish culturally and by identity. That works.”
For his bar mitzvah project, Brian wrote a chess instruction book for beginning adult players, “Chess for Seniors.” He taught chess to residents of Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging, and donated a total of 15 chess sets and copies of his book to Handmaker, Devon Gables nursing home and Tucson Medical Center seniors. He will continue to teach chess at Handmaker through the next school year.
Bernstein says he was impressed by Brian’s discipline in preparing for his bar mitzvah at Temple Emanu-El’s religious school, learning Hebrew in just two and a half years. “He had great enthusiasm and dedication. I’m proud of him.” Speaking at his son’s bar mitzvah — the first in the family since Bernstein’s father’s celebration in 1943 — Bernstein described it as “a circle — the completion of a path reconnecting with Judaism.”
“The tradition was in my family, but it got lost,” says Brian. “There was this connection with Judaism that was renewed when I had my bar mitzvah.”
Kaye Patchett is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.