Yelena Mozeson couldn’t help thinking of her late grandfather as she stood, overlooking the audience, on the day she became a bat mitzvah.
“All my Jewish memories are from him,” said the 55-year-old native of Riga, Latvia, whose grandfather died when she was a teen.
“My parents weren’t religious or observant at all, but I started to wonder a few years ago what Judaism was all about. I really wanted to know more about what was my grandfather’s world.”
Mozeson’s journey of Jewish exploration arrived at a milestone moment Sept. 11 and 12, when she joined 17 other émigrés from the former Soviet Union, ages 30 to 60, for a Shabbat service and a b’nai mitzvah ceremony at the Marconi Retreat Center in Tomales.
The seeds for the b’nai mitzvah were planted three years ago, when a class to study Judaism was formed as a collaborative effort between Congrega-tion Emanu-El in San Francisco and the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services, two institutions committed to the resettlement efforts of Eastern European Jews.
A class of émigrés began studying under the guidance of Emanu-El Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan.
“They’ve met since 2006 to deepen their Jewish knowledge because they felt they lacked the basic elements of Jewish literacy,” said Gayle Zahler, associate executive director of JFCS. “They began studying Jewish texts in English and understanding Jewish traditions.”
A year ago, a few members of the study group decided to take their Judaism to the next level; they proposed a b’nai mitzvah ceremony.
But, Zahler said, “we wanted them to have the experience of Shabbat including Friday night, and not focus merely on the service.”
So after a year of struggling with Hebrew, Torah tropes and Torah portions, the group of 18 — including some people whose children or even grandchildren were already a bar or bat mitzvah — emerged prepared and enthusiastic for thei special weekend. Much of that was thanks to tutoring by Shoshana Sofer, a longtime Jewish educator.
Wolf-Prusan, the group’s study facilitator, gushed like a proud parent as he reflected upon the event.
“What they did was just beautiful,” he said. “Everyone made a personal statement about what the weekend meant to them at this stage of their lives and each was more astonishing than the last.”
Igor Cherkas, 51, said the experience — which included a Kabbalat Shabbat in the woods outside the center — was beautiful and profound.
“It was probably one of the best things I have ever done,” said the native of Ukraine. “Jews wandered around for 40 years to get to Israel, but for me it took a little less to embrace our own customs and religion.”
Cherkas said the experience changed him on personal and philosophical levels. His wife, Tatiana, also became a bat mitzvah the same day.
“My teenage son and daughter helped me to learn the Hebrew and chant so I could sound half human,” Cherkas said with a laugh. “It was an incredibly bonding experience.”
Beyond the bonding, the ceremony left a huge impression on Cherkas’ soul.
“In 1975 in the USSR, we secretly met a relative who lived in Sweden,” Cherkas said. “I remember my father asking him about life outside the USSR. This relative said, ‘You are so lucky because you don’t realize how miserable you are.’
“So as I embrace American and Jewish cultures, I realize now how miserable I was not to have experienced the Jewish religion when I was in the USSR. What we have done now is a miracle.”
Another miracle is how far most in the group traveled — from the harsh anti-Semitism of the former Soviet Union to the relative freedom of the United States.
“None of us even knew the meaning of the Jewish holidays,” said Mozeson, a mortgage broker in San Mateo.
Another participant, Anna Lushtak of Ross, saw the experience as a way to answer her children’s questions about her oppressed Jewish history beyond the Iron Curtain.
“They didn’t understand how we grew up without synagogues or going to Hebrew school,” said the 41-year old stay-at-home mom who went through the process with her husband, Alex. “The ceremony was also a way to share our history and to re-connect to our ancestry.”
Lushtak captured the experience’s significance best in her speech on Shabbat morning. “We are all on this historical journey together with all Jewish people, even when we disagree, even when our perspectives conflict with one another,” she said. “It was standing together at Sinai that gave Jews the strength and determination to continue on the journey, no matter its difficulty.
“We hope that our personal stories from now on will be woven into Jewish history,” she added. “Our personal prayers will be woven into the chorus of millions of Jewish voices. May our learning never cease. May we be strengthened by our knowledge and the vision of a connected Jewish community.”