Coronavirus impacts on Italian boy’s Barmitzvah

  • JTAItalianBarmiBoy
(JTA) Ruben Golran had studied for a year and a half in anticipation of his Barmitzvah this week, when 600 of his relatives and friends were supposed to converge on Milan to celebrate.
by BEN SALES | Mar 05, 2020

First, he planned to have a ceremony on Tuesday, when he would put on tefillin for the first time – a traditional rite of passage. Then, a party was planned for Thursday night, catered by a local kosher Israeli restaurant, and finally another ritual ceremony on Shabbat.

Instead, Ruben’s parents found out on Sunday that everything would be cancelled. Because of the rapid spread of coronavirus in northern Italy, regional officials prohibited large gatherings. A day later, houses of worship were ordered closed.

Within a matter of hours, they called dozens of relatives across the globe, telling them to cancel their flights. On Tuesday, the tefillin ceremony included just Ruben’s close relatives and no friends instead of the 400 planned attendees.

There was no party on Thursday night. Instead, Ruben and his family dined at the Israeli restaurant that was supposed to cater the affair. They still aren’t sure what will happen on Shabbat.

“He learned everything, he was ready, he was waiting for the whole family to come, and then they said it isn’t happening, the synagogue is closed, you can go with your parents if you want,” said Ruben’s mother, Nethaly Golran. “He made us very proud because, through all of this, he was very mature. He never cried. He was sad, but he said, ‘It’s OK. It’s OK, mom. It’ll be OK.’”

Jewish residents of Milan this week said it felt like the city, Italy’s economic capital, had shut down. Soccer matches were cancelled, the city’s Duomo – a major tourist attraction – was closed, and restaurants were instructed to shut their doors before a national evening drink and snack time called aperitivo.

The city’s Jews, who number about 10 000, are facing the same challenges as everyone else. Schools are closed, so people are scrambling for childcare even as some of them still go to work. The city is devoid of tourists, a mega-industry in Italy. There was a rush several days ago on grocery stores. The ban on large gatherings persists, and no one is sure when things will return to normal.

The community also has its share of unique challenges. In spite of the closure of houses of worship, people have tried to convene prayer quorums in apartments in case someone needs to recite the mourner’s kaddish. Some students taking a gap year in Israel who returned home for a short break are now stuck in Italy, barred from returning to their programmes.

Milan’s official Jewish-community organisation has cancelled its regular classes and programmes, including some celebrating the holiday of Purim, which is on 10 March. They hope that things will return to normal before the holiday comes. The community has also set up a task force to assist people who live by themselves and need to get food and other services. The Jewish school is setting up classes via video chat.

“A few people meet in apartments just to make the minyan, but there are no people from outside,” said Milo Hasbani, the president of Milan’s Jewish community. “These are the kind of people who know each other.”

Barmitzvahs aren’t the only Jewish ceremonies to be affected. A bris on Monday also had to be scaled back. At a normal Milanese bris – which, unlike their American counterparts, are often held around noon – more than 100 guests would expect to dine on lasagna, ravioli, and a delicious variety of Italian pastries.

But at this bris, conducted by community mohel Rabbi Shmuel Hezkia in a Milanese synagogue, only a handful of families showed up, and there was no feast to be had.

Hezkia said the whole thing was over quickly. Local officials have instructed Milan’s residents to avoid public gatherings, and the last thing Hezkia wanted was to anger the local government and provoke an investigation of the religious ceremony.

Meanwhile, after reading the JTA story about Golran’s Barmitzvah plight, Aboud Dandachi, a Muslim from Syria living in Canada responded in a way he figured Jews might appreciate – he donated $18 (R278) to the Canadian branch of the Jewish National Fund to plant a tree in Israel in the teen’s honour.

“This is what I know how to do,” said Dandachi, 43, of Toronto. “I’ve had friends in Canada, Jewish friends, who have children, and they seem to appreciate it. That’s how I know how to commemorate such an occasion.”

After fleeing Syria as a refugee in 2013, Dandachi has been an outspoken supporter of Israel and its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Dandachi, who moved to Canada in 2017, even supports Netanyahu’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank. An IT specialist by profession, he founded an organisation called Thank You Am Israel in appreciation of Israeli efforts to aid Syrian refugees.

Golran’s father, Elia, told JTA he was moved by the response to his son’s predicament. In addition to Dandachi’s gift, Golran heard from a Jewish person in New York who plans to send a painting to the family in honour of the Barmitzvah.

“I was in tears next to my computer,” Golran said. “To see that there’s a Muslim from Syria who donated a tree in our land, you understand that this is something special.”

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