Nonagenarian returns to Vilna Shul to relive bar mitzvah

Nonagenarian returns to Vilna Shul to relive bar mitzvah 

As appeared in the February 18, 2016 Jewish Advocate
By Marilyn Okonow



His wish was granted on Feb. 10, when he returned to the historic West End building that is being transformed into a cultural and community center for Greater Boston.

Harry, 97, whose children, Deborah Salant and Alan Jankelle, accompanied him, was carried up to the sanctuary in his wheelchair.

Rabbi Karen Landy, Harry’s rabbi at NewBridge on the Charles, where he resides, officiated. She presented him with a tallit, which his children wrapped around him. She bestowed upon him the birkat kohanim, or Priestly Blessing, and together they said the Shehecheyanu.

Others present at the commemoration were the Vilna Shul’s executive director, Barnet Kessel; board members David Rosen, Sandy and Jack Swartz; shul member Lori Barnet; and this reporter, who also sits on the board. All felt blessed to have witnessed this special simcha in Harry’s life.

Afterward, the family reminisced in the sanctuary. Harry remembered the exact bench where he used to sit with his father, Max Yankelovitz, and recalled how his mother had cooked for a week prior to his bar mitzvah. They found the name of Harry’s mother, Reichel Yankelovitz, on the 1936 Women’s Auxiliary Plaque in the community room.

Max and Rose Yankelovitz – since shortened to Yankelle – were founding members of the Vilna Shul, which was built in 1919. The family lived at 18 Garden St., right around the corner from the Vilna at 18 Phillips St. on Beacon Hill.

The landmark Vilna Shul, which is home to Boston’s Center for Jewish Culture, is the last immigrant-era synagogue building remaining in downtown Boston.

Harry’s bar mitzvah commemoration was first suggested two years ago when Len Fishman, former CEO of Hebrew SeniorLife, contacted the Vilna Shul. He had been speaking to the residents of NewBridge about the old days in the West End, when the quick-witted Harry piped up that he had his bar mitzvah at the Vilna in 1931.

Len mentioned this to the shul. Board member Rosen and this reporter, who also serves as co-founder of the Vilna Shul Genealogy Project, had been looking for descendants of the Vilna’s founders. They promptly contacted Harry and went with Sandy Swartz to visit him at NewBridge.

Harry’s bar mitzvah was 85 years ago, but he remains a West Ender. He expressed interest in being on the bima at the Vilna Shul one last time, and the shul was happy to oblige.

Upon meeting Harry, this reporter realized this was the same man that a friend, Lori Barnet, had mentioned a year earlier. Lori’s daughter, Chloe Savit, then a Pollard middle school student in Needham, had befriended Harry while doing music therapy with the residents of NewBridge.

Lori and Chloe soon adopted Harry and his wife, Jennie; now the Savit family brings a whole gang to NewBridge for the High Holidays, and Harry and Jennie have become part of their family. 

In addition to commemorating his bar mitzvah, Harry recently relived another experience of his youth. On Sept 27, 2015, Lieutenant Colonel Harry Jankelle U.S. Army Medical Corps, Retired, accompanied by his granddaughter, Rebecca Salant, joined 60 others on an honor flight to Washington, where he was saluted and honored as a proud World War II veteran.

Share this Post: