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Celebrating the Strength and Resiliency of Survivors

Recently, Jewish Family Service and the Center for Jewish Care were honored to celebrate the strength and resiliency of 59 Holocaust Survivors residing in San Diego and Orange Counties. During World War II, many Survivors were denied the opportunity to celebrate their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs when they came of age. Thanks to the generosity of the Honig Family Foundation, we were able to host a B’nai Mitzvah celebration on Sunday, November 5, 2023.

Gathering at the Merage Jewish Community Center in Irvine, Survivors and their loved ones enjoyed light refreshments and entertainment by the Orange County Klezmers before making their way into the Myers Theater. The 59 Survivors represented 14 countries, including Germany, France, Algeria, and the former Soviet Union—with the vast majority from Ukraine. They ranged in age from 78 to 102 and all shared the same strong, resilient spirit. Many escaped the war as young children by either walking over mountains in the dark and freezing winter or hiding in abandoned and bombed buildings. Some hid in convents while many others joined and fought with the resistance armies.

After the war, each and every Survivor went on to lead inspiring lives. Some were civil and aerospace engineers who worked to rebuild cities. There were talented actors, entrepreneur bakers, doctors, nurses, and a paramedic. A realtor who became senior prom queen at the age of 97 and a professor of history and language at UCLA and the European Slavic Institute in Pittsburg. Linguists who spoke multiple languages and a clinical social worker who led a therapeutic team at a nonprofit. A Survivor who had a love of deep-sea fishing, a bookkeeper who retired at the age of 87, and a Survivor who hid in the forest for over two years as a young child, moved to America, married another Holocaust Survivor (the love of his life), and became a pharmacist.

I’m thinking a lot about my brother, who had his bar mitzvah in Germany many years ago. I remember going to the synagogue nearby and having a lovely party in the garden with family. To see everyone here today, supporting me for my b’nai mitzvah, is so wonderful. Especially with everything that’s happened to me—like escaping to England during the war—I appreciate it even more so. Right now, it’s so important to have a community you can count on.” 

– Helen Weil, 102-year-old Holocaust Survivor

It was an incredible honor to bring together such a large group of Holocaust Survivors to a moment that should have been a rite of passage celebrated in their youth. They have shown strength and resilience, with a zest for living, that is unique to those who have endured longstanding hardship and persecution. The courage it took to survive through years of deprivation and transitions to join our Jewish communities in America. They have made a new home in Southern California and triumphed.

Rabbi Susan Freeman, Director of the Center for Jewish Care, Cally Clein, Director of the Supporting Our Survivors program, and Carole Yellen, Senior Director of the Center for Jewish Care.

“While these celebrations were long overdue, they were never forgotten. In preparation for this important day, our b’nai mitzvah have spent a lifetime on the study of resilience not just by overcoming persecution and hardship, but by building families and successful businesses in our Southern California community. We are all the beneficiaries of their strength and contributions.”

– Carole Yellen, Senior Director of the Center for Jewish Care

The ceremony began with a reading of Shema Yisrael by Rabbi Ciner, followed by the touching, raising, and chanting of the Torah by Rabbi Spitz, and an affirmation of Jewish identity by Rabbi Freeman. As the Survivors stood beneath the canopy of Talit, tears of joy streamed down their faces, and we were all touched by the immensity of the moment.

While feeling the emotional tragedy of their communities far away, Survivors added to their memory bank of good times with bittersweet smiles. Together, we can continue to embrace them as a supportive community that never forgets.

Our thanks to the Honig Family Foundation, the Merage Jewish Community Center, Jewish Federations of Orange County and San Diego, Rabbi Yisrael Ciner of Beth Jacob Congregation in Irvine, and Rabbi Eli Spitz Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Tustin for helping us make this important and meaningful celebration happen.

Ken and KJ Honig, our generous event underwriter and event emcee.

“Tonight is another Jewish victory. We embrace our community’s Holocaust Survivors and remind them they will remain forever in our hearts and minds.”

– Ken Honig

At JFS, we share commitment and a responsibility to care for Holocaust Survivors in our community and to ensure they can age with dignity and maintain their health, independence, and connection to the community. Through the Center for Jewish Care, we provide comprehensive support services and year-round compassionate care to nearly 400 Survivors residing in Orange and San Diego Counties. Learn more at

We are grateful to many partners who help fund this important work:

Jewish Federation Orange County logo
Jewish Federation of North America logo
JPAC logo

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