Whittier Bat Mitzvah Ceremony : Girl, 12, Soviet ‘Twin’ Come of Age Together

Community Correspondent

Two 12-year-old girls were honored here last weekend in a traditional Jewish coming-of-age ceremony, but one of them may not know about it.

She is Diana Solovei, daughter of Khaim and Nudit Solovei of Latvia, in the Soviet Union. The family has been trying to leave the Soviet Union since Diana was a year old. Officially, permission was denied because Khaim served in the Soviet Army. Also, the family is Jewish.

Leann Baker of Diamond Bar, a little blonde with braces on her teeth, took up Diana’s cause in a procedure known as “twinning.” At Whittier’s Beth Shalom synagogue, Leann shared her bat mitzvah with Diana, who may never have one.

(In the Jewish tradition, girls have bat mitzvahs and boys bar mitzvahs after several years of intensive study of Hebrew, Jewish religion, culture and history. In the Soviet Union, the education and the ceremony are generally unavailable.)

After Michelle and Robert Baker gave their daughter her ceremonial Shabbatt candles and a talit (prayer shawl), Leann laid a second shawl across an empty chair in the center of the bima (stage). Later in the ceremony, with sunlight filtering through blue and amber stained glass, Leann turned to the chair and said:

“Diana, I wish you could be here and share our special day. Living in America and being free has never meant so much to me. Thank you for making my life a little richer.”

Synagogue Vice President Morris Rothman and Sisterhood President Sally Seltzer wished Diana and her family well as they presented gifts to Leann, and Rabbi Norbert Weinberg called the audience’s attention to the Soloveis’ address on the back of the yellow bat mitzvah program.

“Write them a friendly letter telling them about today’s ceremony,” he said. “Say nothing negative about the Soviet Union. That’s very important.”

Weinberg said that twinning--which occurs under the auspices of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, which supplies names and brief biographies of Soviet youngsters--is designed to boost the morale of Soviet Jews and keep the issue of Soviet oppression “a hot potato.”

“Also it reminds the student that we have a responsibility to anyone who is in trouble, and we have a particular responsibility to Jews because we have learned that nobody else will take care of them,” the rabbi said.

Weinberg mentioned the concept at a bar and bat mitzvah class lunch in February. “I didn’t want to plant it on them, but I wanted them to know it was possible,” he said.

Leann was the first bat mitzvah student at Beth Shalom in three years to decide to twin, and one of five who will do so this year. Others in her class at the Conservative synagogue decided to participate after they saw a notice about Diana in Leann’s bat mitzvah invitation.

But the procedure is far from unusual, according to Beth Hersch, director of the Commission on Soviet Jewry of the Community Relations Committee. Twinnings have been going on for about 10 years in the United States, Canada and England, she said.

Leann said she has no mental image of Diana. “It’s really weird not knowing what she looks like,” she said, “but it doesn’t matter, as long as she’s really nice inside.”

Her classmate, Roger Stein, 13, suspects that his twin “lives in a little, cheap, raggedy apartment because he is Jewish. He looks sad, because he cannot be free.”

Roger shared his bar mitzvah with Aleksandr Aunutzky. The Conference on Soviet Jewry says that Aleksandr’s parents were fired from their jobs and his sister expelled during her last year of medical school when the family applied to emigrate from the Soviet Union six years ago.

“When I got the notice in Leann’s invitation, I took a minute and I thought about how lucky I am,” Roger said. “I decided I wanted to twin to help some other person feel like he was going to be free.”

Besides including them in their bar or bat mitzvahs, youngsters are encouraged to write to their twins. Leann sent a letter to Diana about a month ago. So far, she hasn’t received an answer, but she vows to continue writing every month. Also, she said, she prays for Diana.

Roger and Leann have decided against sending their twins certificates about the ceremony.

“Some people aren’t sending certificates because it could bring problems to the family” said Hersch.