Three of the most important people who should have been at Lara Zullow’s bat mitzva were absent. Her paternal grandfather, Marshall Zullow, had died one week earlier. Bronislaw Firuta, a Holocaust rescuer to whom the girl dedicated her bat mitzva, had died on Sept. 12. And, on a less sorrowful note, Joseph Bonder of Monroe Township, a Holocaust survivor whose life was saved by Firuta, was attending his own granddaughter’s Sweet 16 celebration.
And if that were not enough, Hurricane Sandy presented yet another obstacle, forcing the family to relocate the ceremony and celebratory luncheon.
Nevertheless, the 12-year-old Marlboro girl’s ceremony went on — a triumph of grit, hospitality, and the Zullows’ commitment to honoring the Jewish past and future.
Four days after Sandy slammed the East Coast on Oct. 29 and just 24 hours before the Nov. 3 service was set to take place at Temple Beth Shalom in Manalapan, the family was notified that the shul could not be used. Lara’s father, Harold, said a plan had been discussed to allow the service to be held, albeit without electric power. At nearly the last minute, arrangements had to be made for a different site.
Another Temple Beth Shalom bat mitzva, scheduled for the same day, was postponed.
“That wouldn’t work for us,” Zullow explained. “Too many relatives from all over the country had worked too hard and come too far following the storm. They wanted to be at my dad’s funeral, and they deserved to be at Lara’s celebration. We couldn’t ask them to just come back a week or two later.”
Ultimately, the bat mitzva was held at the Grand Marquis, a catering hall on Route 9 South in Old Bridge. It, too, had lost power, but the lights came back on in time for Saturday. Fortunately, a room was available for both the service and a luncheon afterward. Rabbi Allen Darnov, a family friend and one of Lara’s bat mitzva teachers, led the service.
Zullow praised the Grand Marquis owners, Larry and Jodi Fundler, for extending hospitality on such short notice.
It was particularly appropriate, he said, that “Lara’s Torah portion was chapter 18 of Genesis, in which Abraham offers hospitality to three strangers who turn out to be God’s messengers.”
He added, “We learned that Jodi is the descendant of Holocaust survivors, and that also seemed fitting, since Lara focused on this aspect of Jewish history for her bat mitzva project.”
Lara, an honor-roll student at Marlboro Middle School, learned of a New York City-based organization called The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, which identifies, honors, and supports non-Jews who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.
According to her parents, Lara was impressed and moved by their work and by the Jewish teaching that “whoever saves a life, it is as if they have saved the whole world.”
JFR runs a “twinning” program in which a bar/bat mitzva youth is matched with an individual rescuer whose story he or she finds meaningful. Ironically, on the day Lara decided to twin with Firuta, he passed away at his home in Poland. She was, however, able to meet Bonder, now 84, who with his sister Joan found shelter with Firuta’s family after their parents had been captured and sent to their deaths at a concentration camp. The Firuta family, Polish Christians, shared their home with the teenaged Jewish siblings when that seemed safe and concealed them in the barn when danger escalated.
Bonder told NJJN that Bronislaw was a bit older than he was, and the two of them became good friends. They were separated after the war, but in 2009 had an emotional reunion, embracing and addressing each other as “my brother.”
Reflecting on her bat mitzva, Lara told NJJN, “I was sad about my grandfather. It would have been great to have him there.”
But the nicest thing about the event, she said, was “reading about Mr. Firuta, and recognizing how he and his family accepted great risk to help Mr. Bonder and his sister.”