Joseph Finkelstein and Isak Brandt were born nearly 70 years apart in different corners of the globe, but both will become a bar mitzvah on the same day in Pittsburgh this month.
Isak, who was the cousin of Joseph's grandfather, perished in the Holocaust before he reached the age to celebrate a bar mitzvah, one of the most memorable moments in the life of Jewish young men.
Joseph is one of many local Jewish teens who have chosen to share their bar or bat mitzvah with a child who died in the Holocaust.
Celebrated at age 13 for boys and 12 for girls, bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies mark a Jewish child's entry into adulthood. Bar and bat mitzvah translates to son or daughter of commandment, signifying a child's attainment of full responsibility for Jewish law.
"It's one thing to learn about the Holocaust in a broad sense. It's another thing to look at a kid who could have been you," said Jennifer Finkelstein, Joseph's mother. "It helps bring the process of becoming a bar mitzvah into perspective as well. You realize how lucky you are to reach this moment in your life and celebrate your Jewishness without the fears that these children had to struggle with."
Hundreds of Jewish teens in Allegheny County have participated in Remember the Children, a bar and bat miztvah program organized by the Holocaust Center of the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh. Remember the Children builds on the Remember Us project, founded in 2003 in California to help children research a child who died in the Holocaust and commemorate his or her life at their bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies.
Pittsburgh's project takes the Remember Us program a step further, said Jennie Pelled, who oversees the program at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. Students participating in Remember the Children are encouraged to research their own family histories and, if they find one, commemorate a relative who died in the Holocaust before celebrating their bar or bat mitzvah.
"Because my kids are honoring children in their family, it brings a whole new level of understanding," Ms. Finkelstein said. Joseph's sister Tova honored two family members at her bat mitzvah in 2010.
"If they don't have any relatives that were exposed to the Holocaust, we then try a nationality route, or even if they have certain interests in common with a child from the Holocaust, the same birthday, the same name -- something that will connect them on some level," Ms. Pelled said.
Honoring children who were lost in the Holocaust is a way of personalizing Holocaust education for children entering Jewish adulthood. "It brings education about the Holocaust to kids who I think are at the age where they're ready and more able to understand it," Ms. Pelled said. "They're presenting what they've learned in a very public way and bringing the information that they've learned to a more public venue has a huge impact."
Families interested in more information about Remember the Children can contact the Holocaust Center.
"I wish I could have had this opportunity when I was younger," said Roslyn Knapp, 19, a University of Pittsburgh student from Richland. Ms. Knapp has worked with 13 local children to identify and research a child for their bar and bat mitzvahs.
"I get a lot out of seeing how excited some of the kids get," she said. "They don't view it as a chore that they have to do for their b'nai mitzvah."
Although the Holocaust is a significant piece of the Finkelstein's family history, Ms. Finkelstein stressed that a child does not need to have a personal connection to the Holocaust to gain from the program.
"Many of my friends have participated that don't have family members [affected by the Holocaust]," she said. "What matters is that it ties you to a real person."
Marina Bolotnikova: email@example.com.