Every year at Passover, after he'd dressed up as Moses and led his 10 to 12 grandchildren through the “Red Sea,” Bert Bodenheimer would sit them down, settle into his chair, and tell stories about his own childhood in Hitler's Germany.
He'd tell them about those mornings he tricked the Nazi border guards by smuggling his Jewish family's important papers – including the deed to their house – to a sympathetic teacher at his school in nearby Switzerland. He was 10 at the time, and the guards only stopped him – and inspected his bicycle, wheels and all – in the afternoons, as he was pedaling his way back into Germany. By then, he'd already unloaded the goods.
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Bodenheimer, who went on to become an engineer, died in March. But one of those grandchildren – Elyse Bodenheimer, 12, of Charlotte – has preserved his and others' memories on a new Web site she's launched for grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.
Elyse created MyJewishLegacy.com as a project for her upcoming bat mitzvah – a Jewish celebration of her coming of age. (For boys, it's bar mitzvah.) And like a growing number of such projects in recent years, hers is designed not strictly as a family affair, but to be of service to others in increasingly ambitious ways.
As Elyse and other Jewish 12- and 13-year-olds reach the threshold of adulthood, “we are teaching them personal responsibility for their own actions, and that means a religious requirement to help others,” says Rabbi Murray Ezring of Charlotte's Temple Israel, a Conservative congregation that includes Elyse and her family.
Some other local examples of “mitzvot” – or good deeds:
Allison Smith, 12, whose bat mitzvah is next month, helped Ryan Donahue, a special needs 7-year-old, swing the bat and run the bases as a volunteer with the Little League Challenger baseball division in Union County. “It kind of makes me feel better that I'm helping people be more included in life,” says Allison, whose family attends Charlotte's Temple Beth El, a Reform congregation.
For the place settings at his recent bar mitzvah party, Sammy Lerner, 13, of Charlotte filled 15 to 20 tote bags with games, coloring books and sensory toys – all destined for special-needs children, including those enrolled in Ein Gedi (named for a place in Israel), a program at the Charlotte Jewish Day School. He also donated 10 percent of the money he received as gifts from family and friends. “I really wanted to have fun, but I also wanted other people to have fun, too,” says Sammy, whose family belongs to Charlotte's OhrHaTorah, an Orthodox congregation.
Others have prepared for their bat mitzvah or bar mitzvah by knitting blankets for patients at Levine Children's Hospital, reading books to residents at nursing homes, and training Special Olympics athletes for swimming and tennis competitions.
Historically, ceremonies surrounding bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah were modest family affairs, says Rabbi Yossi Groner of OhrHaTorah. There'd be a dinner, the boy or girl would stand to give a talk on the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible), and it would end with some singing and dancing.
But these days, especially in the United States, bat mitzvahs and bar mitzvahs are often bigger, more elaborate, with catered parties, a long list of guests, and themes.
“What I'm happy to see,” Groner says, “is that children are saying, ‘Let's do something positive with the party so that others can benefit.'”
Doing a project, or “mitzvah,” reinforces a Jewish belief: As they are transformed from children to adults, they now have a responsibility not only to follow God's commandments, but to become productive members of the community.
And in the age of the Internet, iPods and 24-hour TV news channels, that community no longer has to be limited to your hometown.
“What's happening, as the world becomes smaller and smaller, is that the scope of (projects) can become larger and larger,” says Ezring.
Take MyJewishLegacy.com, Elyse's project for her January bat mitzvah. With the possibilities of the Web, Ezring says, “it could become national, even international.”
Word spreads about Web site
“Did your parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts or close friend survive the holocaust?” Elyse asks visitors to her Web site. “Have you ever asked them about their stories, and what they remember? Would you write a story and even send a picture, so we can post it on this website?”
She's posted her own family's photos and stories – Bert Bodenheimer's and those of his late wife, Ellen, whose father was detained for weeks by the Gestapo.
So far, she's gotten five other submissions. Elyse, an outgoing girl who's never far from her Dell laptop and has passion for the color pink, says she's confident traffic will pick up as word gets around.
That's starting to happen. She and the site are scheduled to get some ink in JVibe, a magazine for Jewish teens. The Charlotte Jewish News also plans an article.
Even the International School for Holocaust Studies, or Yad Vashem, in Israel has expressed interest, telling Elyse in an e-mail that “your website is a great example (of) what can be done by the third and fourth generations in order to commemorate the stories of Holocaust survivors.”
And Ruth Kohn Colten Bloch, a Holocaust survivor from Croatia who came to the United States when she was 12, saw an item about Elyse's Web site in the Baltimore Jewish Times. She notified her own grandchildren about the site.
“I have often wondered once all the Holocaust Survivors are gone, who will take over our quest to make sure our stories don't die with us,” Bloch wrote in an e-mail to Elyse's parents, Andrew and Sharon. “(Elyse) has answered my question.”
When she was 10, Elyse interviewed her grandfather, Bert, about growing up in Germany during the first years of the Nazi nightmare and how his family was eventually able to flee to Switzerland, then to New York, in 1939. She still has her questions and his answers.
That early curiosity burns even brighter today. Elyse, a seventh-grader at South Charlotte Middle School, insists that her Web site is only the beginning. She wants to help educate her generation about what their grandparents went through when they were children.
“I hope to be just like him, teaching others about the Holocaust,” she says of Grandpa Bert. “I'm definitely going to stick with this. And if I do, hopefully others will, too.”