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Cold Place, Warm Ceremony

Cold Place, Warm Ceremony

Torah scroll? Check! Prayerbooks? Check! Shovels? Check!

Not your standard list for a bar or bat mitzvah, but Murmansk isn’t your standard place.

It’s a port city in Russia’s Murmansk Oblast (administrative district), in the northwestern-most corner of Russia on the Kola Bay, near the Finnish border, home to the world’s only fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers.

And, one recent day, it was the site of what may have been the northernmost bar and bat mitzvah ceremony in the world.

Under the auspices of the Jewish Agency, which runs Hebrew and Jewish history classes there, and twinned with Cleveland’s Jewish Federation and Beth Israel-The West Temple, which offers moral and material support to the Jews of Murmansk, seven teenage and college-aged members of the city’s small Jewish community, marked their religious coming of age by reciting the traditional prayer and reading their Torah portions.

But first, they had to dig themselves into the building. It had snowed, several feet’s worth, that morning. Out came the shovels.

Trondheim, Norway, three degrees south of the Arctic Circle, likes to call itself the northernmost Jewish community in the world, but Murmansk, nearly three degrees north of the line, is competition for that title. It’s the largest city inside the Arctic Circle. Population: 307,000, a few hundred of whom are Jews. With average daily temperatures of about 14 degrees Fahrenheit, no one questions the city’s frigid bona fides.

A Jewish Agency’s youth shaliach, Sagi Rabovski, had traveled to Murmansk, nearly 900 miles from his base in St. Petersburg, after the youths had requested the agency’s assistance. After reading that Natan Sharansky, chair of Israel’s quasi-governmental organization, had recently marked his bar mitzvah at 65, they decided they weren’t too old.

Rabovski tutored the teens. He brought them Torah books as gifts.

“I feel that it is my mission to help even the smallest Jewish communities,” Rabovski said. By connecting Jews to Israel and the Jewish tradition, we can strengthen their Jewish identities.”

All they need is shovels.


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