Archives in April 2018

Coming of Age: Julia’s Bat Mitzvah Rite of Passage

By Michelle and Ron Herzlinger
April 12, 2018

Girl holding a Torah

About three years ago, we wrote an article for Gateways: Access to Jewish Education’s blog about our experience as parents of a child with learning disabilities.  The article went on to describe some of the trials and tribulations we struggled with for many years to find an appropriate Jewish educational setting for our daughter Julia.  Readers of the article were pleased to learn that our efforts were rewarded by discovering the Gateways Sunday Program here in Boston.  At the time, while Julia was participating in her Jewish learning on Sundays, she was also beginning to prepare for her bat mitzvah, and the Sunday Program helped to lay the initial groundwork for additional preparation that Julia would have with an after school mid-week class. 

As any Jewish parent who has a child with special needs can attest, preparing for a bar/bat mitzvah can bring on that all too familiar feeling of being uncomfortable.  That discomfort—a real feeling of  anxiety—comes from having to honestly separate what you want for your child’s bat mitzvah (your hopes) from what’s most appropriate for your child.  The reconciliation of these differences must balance her capabilities in light of the requirements of the bat mitzvah service against the specific needs and abilities of the child.  In other words, both the child about to become bat mitzvah and the service itself must be honored. So, what to do?  We trusted the guidance we and Julia received from the staff concerning Julia’s learning and preparation for the service because we knew that they had done this before in ways that held true to the spirit of both child and tradition. Gateways worked with us to customize the logistics of the day so that we could provide Julia with a warm and welcoming environment, an audience of her friends, teachers and family, music and a seudah to celebrate her rite of passage. 

We’re happy to relate that the entire year of dedicated preparation for her bat mitzvah allowed Julia to learn the blessings on the Torah, as well as share in the communal prayers and singing which are the hallmarks and customs of the Jewish people. As the weeks went by during her preparatory year, one Shabbat to another, Julia would share with us what new material and insights she had gained.  We noticed that more and more on each Shabbat, Julia was participating in the Shabbat conversation, adding her perspectives and joining her family in singing the blessings before and after the Shabbat meal.  The Gateways learning was paying off in a currency of shared emotion and love for her Jewishness with her family. 

Fast forward to her bat mitzvah day that included this memorable highlight.   With the guests facing the aron kodesh, (ark where the Torah is kept), Julia’s brothers have helped Julia remove the Torah from the ark, the blessings have been said, and there stands Julia ready to deliver her d’var Torah (speech about what she has learned from her Torah portion) Julia relates the details of her portion, sharing with us her unique appreciation for the lessons of the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim (hospitality to guests).  Songs are sung, dancing commences and Julia loves her day!  As we look back, perhaps the most amazing thing was just how normally Julia’s bat mitzvah flowed in the course of our family life. She had her bat mitzvah after her older brother celebrated his and before her younger brother will celebrate his. Despite her atypical learning profile, she was, ultimately, no different from her “typical” brothers in what was expected of her as a Jewish 13-year old.

This moment—this celebration—was all made possible through the tireless hours of preparation and one-on-one learning that happened between Julia and her Gateways instructor.  But what else made for this special day?  What have we learned?  We understand that successful outcomes are determined by the direct effort to find and marry reasonable expectations on the part of parents to a child’s ability to deliver on those expectations.  When parents trust the educational process of Gateways and remain open-minded to crafting a service which honors both the child and the bat mitzvah service together, magical things can happen.  Stay tuned for the next chapter in Julia’s Jewish experience, as she’s decided to continue on in her Gateways education!


Opening the Gates of Bar/Bat Mitzvah to All

By David Farbman, Director of the Center for Professional Learning
April 12, 2018

Hands guiding hands along a tactile siddurIn the American Jewish community, the bar mitzvah (and later bat mitzvah) has long stood out as a pinnacle moment in the life of a family and individual. To be sure, some of the milestone’s import stems from the social pressure we might feel to “put on a good party” for our friends. But the bar and bat mitzvah also hold such weight because, in the celebration of turning 13 and partaking in traditional practices of our faith, young Jews are making a very public pronouncement of pride in being Jewish and in becoming a member with full benefits in the Jewish community.

For many young Jews, however, a bar or bat mitzvah seemed out of reach, not for lack of desire, but because the expected achievements that marked the moment—like reading from the Torah, chanting blessings and other prayers and teaching the congregation—involved cognitive or social abilities that they struggled to sustain. Indeed, how could a child classified as “non-verbal” or one who suffered from social anxiety undertake some of the rituals of the bar/bat mitzvah? The answer for too many of these children was to skip the milestone altogether, a truly unfortunate circumstance that families accepted with the same sad resignation they did about so many other experiences they knew their child with special needs would never have the opportunity to enjoy.

But not all parents of children with disabilities were (or are) willing to so resign themselves. They know that even if their child cannot read or speak or process in typical ways, their son or daughter is just as proud of their Jewish heritage as any child and is equally eager to demonstrate their pride to friends and family. Still, how is it possible to marry the desire to experience the rite of passage with the reality that the customs that define that ceremony may be largely inaccessible to a child with special learning needs?

To reconcile this tension, Gateways follows a twofold strategy. First, Gateways expert educators work with families and clergy together to make modifications within the service and its implementation to accommodate the child’s specific needs and abilities. Second, Gateways has established the infrastructure necessary to adequately prepare each child to reach her/his own personal benchmarks. The Gateways B’nei Mitzvah Program curriculum allows students to explore the meaning of the bar/bat mitzvah experience, a weekly opportunity to practice prayers and reading in a social and supportive setting and to form a one-on-one relationship with a dedicated tutor.

We’re pleased to have the voices of each of the players in this partnership—program manager, tutor, clergy, parent and, of course, bar mitzvah celebrant. Reading their pieces together conveys how powerful this coming of age is for the students and everyone who surrounds them. And it illustrates how many possibilities are open to students with disabilities, if we approach the process thoughtfully, individually and collaboratively. 


Lauren’s Bat Mitzvah

By Rabbi Allison Berry, Temple Shalom, Newton MA
April 11, 2018

Tutor and girl working together

We gathered together in front of the open ark. Wrapped in her beautiful tallit, Lauren stood proud and tall, as she received her blessing. Lauren’s Bat Mitzvah was the culmination of many months commitment, hard work, and yes, also joy and laughter. Despite her initial anxiety, Lauren shared her voice and personality, as she chanted from Torah, taught her friends and family about Jewish tradition, and led the Temple Shalom community in prayer.

Lauren’s Bat Mitzvah was the result of careful thought and preparation that began at Gateways. Last spring, as the officiating rabbi, I met with Lauren, the Gateways team and Lauren’s parents, as we crafted an outline, rehearsal plan and set goals for Lauren’s learning. The Gateways team and Lauren’s mom shared information with me about her strengths and learning style. Lauren shared ideas about what she thought was important about becoming Bat Mitzvah. Together, we decided it would be a priority for Lauren to read from the Torah, chant the Shema and teach the congregation about her Torah portion.

Since Lauren sometimes struggles with anxiety, we planned to meaningfully acclimate her to leading prayers in our sanctuary with the microphone turned on, while wearing the dress, shoes and ritual items she would wear on the day she became Bat Mitzvah (a wool tallit can sometimes be itchy!!). We discovered the Hakafah (the practice of walking the Torah around the sanctuary so the community can be close to the scroll) made Lauren especially nervous. We practiced this moment in her service over and over, planning for the unexpected: enthusiastic guests trying to hug the Bat Mitzvah, people laughing or sneezing and loving family who might cry at this powerful moment. Through these run-throughs, we discovered Lauren preferred high-fives to hugs and decided to communicate this to all guests. We previewed what the day of the Bat Mitzvah might feel like by inviting members of the community into the sanctuary and asking them to make a joyful noise – talking, laughter and everything in-between – while Lauren led prayers. We experimented with the timing of our rehearsals (mornings when we are fresh and not tired are ALWAYS preferred). We worked hard to be consistent but also flexible, to follow our set plan, and we decided rehearsals should last no more than 45 minutes. Most of all, Lauren and our team learned to expect the unexpected.

Lauren chose to write her D’var Torah (speech about the Torah text) about the Biblical brothers, Jacob and Esau. Throughout the book of Genesis, the rivalry between the two is difficult and intense. But finally, at the end of Lauren’s Torah portion (Parashat Vayishlach), we learn they forgive one another. Lauren was fascinated by this story and wrote, “Jacob and Esau forgive one another because family is more important than an argument. Family is something that will last forever.” Ultimately, the importance of family was what Lauren’s special day was all about. On the day of her Bat Mitzvah, through her commitment, intention and good deeds, Lauren became an adult member of our Jewish family.

Lauren taught her teachers and her rabbi a powerful lesson about perseverance, how to start and end rehearsals with humor and how to always appreciate a good high-five. As she chanted and taught words of Torah, Lauren added her voice and perspective to the story of our people. She reminded us, that without her, our Jewish family would be incomplete. 


A Bat Mitzvah Journey

By Rochelle Kelman, Gateways Institutional Relations Manager and Tutor
April 11, 2018

Girl holding Torah

Amen”. Temana chanted beautifully, after reciting with confidence the blessings after the Torah. She lifted her eyes and scanned the congregation surrounding her and smiled. Did I catch a glimpse of a sigh? Or perhaps I was imagining a shared sigh of wonder that Temana had arrived successfully at the completion of her bat mitzvah responsibilities. Looking around the room, I saw a myriad of smiling faces. Her parents beamed with pride; her older sister’s face expressed joy and relief, as she could well appreciate the amount of work put in to succeed; her fellow b’nei mitzvah students, who have progressed alongside her in this shared experience, together with the rabbi, family and friends relishing this joyous moment. And then, a rain of soft candy ricocheted through the room towards Temana as she was being shielded by the rabbi’s tallit. Cheers of “Mazal Tov” and “Yasher koach” reverberated throughout the room. The smaller children pounced on the fallen goodies, stuffing them into their mouths and pockets.

Arriving at this point culminates a journey that Temana had started a year and a half ago at the Gateways B’nei Mitzvah program. Gateways prepares students with special educational needs for their bar/bat mitzvah with a combination of individual tutoring, classroom activities and a weekly prayer service. When Temana and I first discussed her plans to study for her bat mitzvah, she told me that the whole thing seemed like a dream to her; but because she had seen her sister Yannik go through with me as her tutor, she could see herself making this dream real. We approached our task one step at a time, beginning with learning the Hebrew Alef Bet with the help of Marion Green’s mnemonics for each letter and vowel. From there, we slowly progressed into reading words like shabbat and abba. Temana always took pleasure in asking for the meaning of each word. We giggled when some words sounded similar to English words like “car.” (The same sounding word in Hebrew means “cold.”) During class time, led by  gifted special education teacher, Rebecca Redner, we sat with all the other students and their tutors in the program to chant the tefilot in the same order to be expected during a Shabbat morning prayer service.

When Temana was reading quite fluently, the time had come for her to learn how to chant her bat mitzvah Torah portion. We spent some time discussing the story that appeared in her portion—Moses presenting the Ten Commandments to the Israelites at Mount Sinai—and then we waded knee-deep into unfamiliar words and the rising and falling notes (called trope) that would allow her to chant this Torah portion in the way tradition dictates. When Temana saw the paragraph from which she was to read, she expressed anxiety at the enormity of the task. We struggled at first when we tackled each new verse, but soon  celebrated with “high-fives,” as she mastered one verse after another.  A couple of months before the date of her bat mitzvah, Temana donned a beautiful tallit, hand-made especially for this occasion, and recited the blessings in class. From there, she proceeded to read her portion. At first she read timidly, but, as the weeks passed, her confidence grew and her focus sharpened. I was amazed at her poise and dedication even when she experienced a setback.

The day of her bat mitzvah arrived. Seated amongst her family, I felt the anticipation rising in Temana, who was ready to conduct her part of the service. Knowing how well prepared she was, I had no doubts she was ready to take her place amongst the many generations before her who have reached this milestone.

 Yasher koach, Temana!


My Gateways Bar Mitzvah Experience

By Nate Leibholz
April 11, 2018

Nate Leibholz

In the Gateways B’nei Mitzvah Program, I learned how to read Hebrew.

Marion Green and my tutor helped me learn to read from the Torah. Marion made sure I learned just the right amount each week and that I practiced a lot.  Marion and Mia helped me write a speech where I talked about becoming an adult and what that means.  

My teachers and friends from the B’nei Mitzvah program came to my bar mitzvah.  I still see lots of my friends at Mitzvah Mensches, my Gateways youth group.  

 After my Bar Mitzvah service, we had big celebration. My favorite part was when I was lifted up in the chair while the music was playing and all of my friends and family were around me smiling and cheering!  

I feel proud to be Jewish because Judaism teaches us to be kind and help each other. Thank you, Gateways for one of the best days of my life!