In the months before bar mitzvah boy Jeremy Benjamin ascended to the Torah at his Nashville, Tenn., synagogue, he learned to don the prayer boxes known as tefillin and to read from Judaism’s holiest scroll—all in all, standard pre–13th birthday fare for a Jewish young man. But Benjamin spent quite some time on an activity just as necessary: he helped preserve the memories of hundreds of Holocaust survivors.

In addition to the typical bar mitzvah training, Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Yitzchok Tiechtel requests that his students volunteer in a humanitarian effort of their choice.

“We train our bar mitzvah kids not just to read the Torah, but to actually live it,” he emphasizes.

Jeremy couldn’t decide on a project. First, he considered volunteering at a shelter.

“But tons of people were doing it,” recalls his mother, Jordie Benjamin.

After the shelter idea was nixed, Jeremy and his mom began throwing around other ideas. Finally, Jeremy decided to volunteer for the World Memory Project.

A collaboration between the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and, the memory project seeks to preserve and upload thousands of documents containing details about Holocaust victims and survivors. With only 2,200 volunteers worldwide, the project is constantly looking for help, and Jeremy grabbed the chance.

“It’s pretty cool, because you get to read the documents and then write them out so they’re searchable online,” he says.

Jeremy works together with his parents, who help him decipher the sometimes unintelligible handwriting on the original documents.

“I was surprised that all these records weren’t already public,” says Jeremy’s father, David Benjamin. “It’s so important for people to know where they come from. I feel like there are probably a lot of people who are going to want to find out about their ancestors this way. If the records are searchable online, relatives could find them.”

Rabbi Yitzchok Tiechtel requests of all of his students to volunteer in a humanitarian effort of their choice. (Photo: Rick Malkin)
Rabbi Yitzchok Tiechtel requests of all of his students to volunteer in a humanitarian effort of their choice. (Photo: Rick Malkin)

A few hours every week, Jeremy and his parents read through scanned copies of handwritten documents. These documents contain the names, birthdays, marriage status, and other information of somebody’s grandfather, great-aunt or sister. After deciphering the handwriting, Jeremy types the information into an online database that’s part of a free online resource.

“Now, just by typing a [Holocaust survivor’s] name in Google, you can find out what happened to them,” explains Jordie Benjamin.

Elaine Culbertson never knew much about her grandfather, who died in the Holocaust. She discovered his information while searching through archives similar to those that Jeremy inputs weekly. Discovering documentation about her grandfather’s life gave Culbertson a clearer picture of who her grandfather was.

“It made him into a real person for me, not a ghost of the past,” she says. “The fact that there were documents to prove that he had once lived and that he had died—that was an amazing find for me.”

Jeremy wanted to mark his entry into adulthood with a project that would enhance the lives of others.

“A bar mitzvah is a big milestone, because it comes once in a lifetime,” he says. “It’s when you become a man.”

By restoring the identities of those who were once lost to the world, he says he is filling in the gap of a lost generation, and helping a countless number of people create family connections, one name at a time.