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October 20, 2016 9:26 am

Children of Fallen Soldiers Celebrate Mass Bar Mitzvah

avatar by Sam Sokol / JNS.org

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The participants in the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization's mass bar and bat mitzvah ceremony with Israeli leaders. Photo: Sam Sokol.

The participants in the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization’s mass bar and bat mitzvah ceremony. Photo: Sam Sokol.

JNS.org — 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 last week in a mass ceremony conducted by the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization.

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.

Ahead of a celebratory concert, the children met with the Israeli army’s chief rabbi Thursday morning, from whom they received pairs of tefillin, the phylacteries Jewish men wrap around their arms and heads during prayer.

“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.”

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As multicolored strobe lights illuminated the room during the evening gala, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin addressed the youngsters, accompanied by IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Eizenkot, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman 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. Among those clapping and laughing as the IDF choir sang classic Israeli pop songs was Asool Naserladen from the Druze village of Daliyat Eal-Karmel.

Asool, now 12, was only four years old when her father, Lutfe, an infantryman in the Golani Brigade, was killed in the line of duty.

An IDF choir member singing at the event. Photo: Sam Sokol.

An IDF choir member singing at the event. Photo: Sam Sokol.

She recalled his laugh, how he would buy her presents and a trip he took her on to a Tel Aviv amusement park. Since losing him, Asool said, she considers the IDF Widows and Orphans organization “my home. I feel that everyone loves me and thinks about me.”

Also among the 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.

US Army Major 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.

Voelke’s wife, Tami, described her initial reaction to the news. “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,” she said. “They [military officials] asked me if they could 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. said.

The Voelkes connected with the Israeli widows and orphans organization through an American group with a similar mission.

Staying with an Israeli army widow during their visit has been incredibly special, Tami said, and she described visiting Israel during the High Holidays as a “very spiritual” experience. She added that sharing stories and pictures with the families of other fallen soldiers “helped us all through this big event for A.J.,” adding that she had felt an “instant connection” with the other participants.

“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 great.”

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