By LESLIE PALMA-SIMONCEK
ADVANCE STAFF WRITER
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- Vitaly Benzion remembers eating matzoh for Passover as a child in the Ukraine and later in Leningrad. But that was about it for Jewish practice.
"In Russia, it was killed there," he said of religion. "Nobody really believed in God there. Those who believed were in jail."
When Benzion came to the United States in 1981, he met some people from Chabad Lubavitch, the Brooklyn-based Jewish outreach organization, and became interested in connecting with his Jewish roots.
He wrote a letter to the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, and received a letter back from a representative telling him the rebbe had given him a blessing.
For $5 a month, the organization provided him with tefillin for morning prayers and he sometimes attended Shabbos services at a Lubavitcher yeshiva in Morristown, N.J.
"I had some questions still," said the New Dorp resident. "The religion was new to me."
His religious journey took a giant step this week when, at the age of 47, he became Bar Mitzvah at Congregation Toras Emes, an Oakwood synagogue he has sometimes attended since moving to Staten Island from Brooklyn five years ago.
"I had some kind of inner feeling that it would support my future in Judaism," he said of the rite of passage usually celebrated at 13.
The ceremony took place Sunday, with cousins, his aunt, and friends in attendance. Morris Shuster, president of the United Association of Eastern European Jewry, spoke about the challenges the Russian immigrant community has in reconnecting with their Jewish heritage.
Fluent in Russian and English, Benzion admitted to some difficulty with the Hebrew.
While reading from the Torah, "I had to repeat after Rabbi Ivry," he said. "Hebrew I don't know very good."
When he became a U.S. citizen in 1986 he changed his name from Benzianov to Benzion because it sounds more Jewish. This week he chose Yeshaya for his Hebrew name.
"In Yiddish it means help," he said. "I try to help people as much as I can."
Rabbi Ivry said this was his first adult bar mitzvah.
"We were very excited and glad he chose our synagogue," said the rabbi, a Lubavitcher. "We feel it's a milestone."
Benzion said the ceremony was an emotional one for him.
"I feel kind of uplifted, energized," he said. "I feel quite different."
As he continues his journey of return to Judaism, the still-single Benzion said he would like to find a wife to accompany him.
"I certainly would like to have a companion."
Leslie Palma-Simoncek is the religion editor for the Advance. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.