William Echikson
Progressive Jewish Voice

Celebrating a Special Bar Mitzvah in Brussels

It’s a bar and bat mitzvah tradition — throw a big party, collect gifts, and celebrate. But our small synagogue in Brussels, the International Jewish Centre, recently feted the Jewish journey into adulthood without big gifts or big parties.

Jude Zola handed over a check collected for his Bar Mitzvah for the HIAS refugee agency. His mother and father assisted. Rabbi Brian Doyle-Debreuil is on the left and William Echikson on the right.

Instead, thoughtful generosity marked the celebration. Bar mitzvah Jude Zola decided to donate his gifts to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, HIAS, the global Jewish humanitarian organization. HIAS helped Jews fleeing 19th-century East European pogroms. Since the early 2000s, it has broadened its scope to help displaced people of any faith and background in more than 20 countries.

For Jude, inspiration for singling out HIAS came as he prepared his D’var Torah on his parashah Tzav about sacrifices. In his mind, the story wasn’t about slaughtering animals or burning incense. It instructed him to explore what he could sacrifice to help others.

Jude witnessed Ukrainian refugees living on the streets in Brussels. He saw them standing in line at shelters and met students and their families at his school. He wanted to help.  The site of fleeing Ukrainians reminded him of his ancestors, the biblical dispersion of Israelites or Jews out of their ancient homeland of Israel.

Like myself, Jude and his family came to Belgium not because of war or oppression, but because of opportunity. I serve on the HIAS Europe board and am proud to have helped bring this Jewish refugee agency to the continent. Until it arrived, no Jewish voice existed to help and lobby for refugees in Brussels.  Jude’s father serves in the US Department of Defense. Jude says his family is comfortable; he didn’t need gifts to fete his big Bar Mitzvah day.

After Jude spoke to our Rabbi Brian Doyle-DeBreuil about his experiences with Ukrainians, he discussed the idea of the true meaning of the word “Tzedakah,” the concept of selfless giving, linked to the Jewish obligation to pursue justice. For his Tzedakah Project, he started a GoFundMe page to raise money to support Ukrainian Refugees.

The donation will go to HIAS Europe, specifically to HIAS’ Ukraine response operations. Through its Brussels office, HIAS assists displaced Ukrainians across the European Union. It runs field operations in Moldova, Poland, Romania, and Ukraine and organizes Welcome Circles with local European Jewish communities to facilitate the integration of Ukrainian refugees. More than 100,000 displaced Ukrainians are supported annually.

But donor fatigue towards the crisis in Ukraine and the Jewish community’s focus on the Gaza-Israel war make it a challenge to maintain current levels of support. Every dollar or euro counts. I was honored to receive a check for €1557 on HIAS’ behalf on the day of Jude’s bar mitzvah.

Bar and bat mitzvahs are special in our community. Large synagogues hold two or more each weekend. My American nephew had his bar mitzvah with five others and the rabbi could not pronounce his last name. In contrast, we have only a few each year, making each celebration special, a moment to be savored and enjoyed. The 100 or so assembled guests celebrated Jude’s achievement with special joy.

If you would like to follow Jude’s example, please go to this page on the HIAS website.

About the Author
William Echikson, a founder of the International Jewish Centre of Brussels, served for three decades as a foreign correspondent in Europe for a series of US publications including the Christian Science Monitor. Wall Street Journal, Fortune and BusinessWeek. He is the author of four books, including works on the collapse of communism in Central Europe and the history of the Bordeaux wine region.
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