Archives in February 2020

Isabella's Bat Mitzvah: A Mother's Reflections

By Cara Coller
February 6, 2020

Child, mother and father dressed in fancy clothingAs I sat down to write this, for once in my life I was at a loss. Not at what to say, but how to express what it means to be Isabella’s mother and to share her bat mitzvah day with her and her community. I reflect on the last 13 years and all she has endured, experienced, accomplished and how much she amazes us each and every day.

Isabella’s bat mitzvah day was one that I never expected to experience, a day that as a mom, I hoped and prayed for, but knew that the odds were against us. To be on the bimah, reading Torah with my daughter, I can only say, “Well, my Izzy Bee, you proved those odds wrong, as you have done so many times.”

When Izzy was just 48 hours old, we learned her life would not be as easy as we had pictured it. At only 4 ½ pounds, we handed her over for lifesaving heart surgery, not knowing how someone so small could endure that. A surgery that, at the time, saved her, but handed her challenges that would last a lifetime. But those are challenges that she takes on with strength and perseverance.

Isabella has forever changed my husband’s and my views on life, on what is most important, and how we view the world around us. She has taught us that people and who they are matter so much more than appearance, objects, places, or items. We know that differences and challenges make us more beautiful, more alive than we thought possible. Isabella has taught me what it means to be strong: that to be scared and to still be able to accomplish things or do something you never thought you could do or survive is the bravest of all.

They say that G-d gives you what you can handle, and that there is a reason for everything. Well, I sometimes have trouble understanding that or why things had to happen the way they did.  What I do know is that before Izzy, Boston was never even a thought in our minds. We came here from Miami for her, and because of her, we have connected with all of the incredible people who surround us—family, friends, and an entire community, true “warriors” that I am honored to know.

That community is full of people who every day wake up and choose to make a difference in someone else’s life, to make sure that everyone feels included. That is the world of Perkins School for the Blind, Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, Children’s Hospital Boston, and Temple Emanuel. They say it takes a village. When a child is medically complex, you learn who your village truly is. And what an amazing village we have.

In Miami, we always felt loved by our clergy, but we never felt we could attend services, and we were unable to find Isabella a Hebrew school. But here in Boston, we have found Gateways, which has helped Isabella learn to love Judaism. And the Gateways staff led us to Temple Emanuel, where on our first visit to tour the preschool, although Izzy spent most of the time running circles on the bimah, it did not faze our guide, Lisa Hills, one bit. Nor did it startle the congregation when we were called for an aliyah as a new family, and my son, who did not like crowds, stood up and announced to the entire congregation he did not like reading Hebrew and Izzy ran off the bimah.

I still recall that one night, when we chose to come to Temple Emanuel’s Shabbat Alive service, Isabella decided to sing as loud as possible with the Rabbi and Cantor. No one was upset or discouraged; instead, they embraced it. At the end Izzy ran up and hugged Rabbi Michelle, and people came up to us tell us how amazing she is. No, judgment, no looks, no whispers, just love! I knew at that moment we were home.

Over the last year, I watched Izzy study prayers and work so hard every week with her Gateways teacher, Rebecca, and her aide, Nathan, because she wanted to become a bat mitzvah. Isabella has taught us to be patient and that even if we may take different paths, we can still end up where we need to be. Time does not define what we can accomplish, only our actions do. She has taught us what it means to be strong and see the world from not only one view, but many. She has taught us to appreciate every milestone and every occasion. And how proud we, her family and her community, are that she has accomplished one of the greatest honors in a Jewish woman’s life, reading from the Torah.

Isabella’s Hebrew name, Chaya Yitzchaka, is such a reflection of who she is. We named her Chaya, which means life, when she was in the NICU, and we were not sure where this road would lead us. We then added Yitzchaka when she was three, after her great grandpa, Irving, which means laughter. “Life of laugher”: Isabella stands true to her name. She lights up a room with her love of life, her singing, dancing, and delight in music. Each day she brings us laughter, joy, and life, so much life! She has taught us to appreciate every milestone and every occasion, to open our eyes and see a world that we may not have seen so beautifully, if it weren’t for her. For this, we are forever grateful.

 Read Gateways Teen Volunteer alumna Shoshana Cohen's companion article here.

This article originally appeared on JewishBoston.com.

 

An Invitation to Opened Gates

By Shoshana Cohen
February 6, 2020

Two girls, one in Gateways shirt, work together on projectI returned to my dorm room with a piece of mail in my hand. This wasn’t just any piece of mail; it was the invitation to my Gateways student Izzy’s bat mitzvah. This invitation felt like so much more than a few slips of paper because my connection to Izzy changed the course of my life.

Every Sunday morning for two years, I would jump out of bed, eager and ecstatic to go to Gateways: Access to Jewish Education’s Sunday Program to tutor Izzy, a student with learning differences. Together, we began slowly learning the Shema, one of Judaism’s most important prayers. We practiced and sang, month after month, until one Sunday morning, Izzy recited the whole prayer by herself without any assistance. It was her hard work and her accomplishment, but I remember coming home that day and telling my parents and my friends about how proud I was and how incredible it felt to have been a part of Izzy’s breakthrough.

After that, she started picking up prayers more quickly, and towards the end of our first year working together, Izzy’s parents decided it was time for her to begin preparing for her bat mitzvah. By the end of that year, Izzy had started learning the first of three parts of her Torah portion. The following year was filled with Sundays spent together, learning most of Izzy’s Torah portion and the majority of the prayers in her binder.

Through our time spent together, Izzy and I formed a strong connection. There are many goodbyes that I had to say when I graduated from high school and went off to college, but leaving Izzy (who said, “Bye, Shoshana. See you in a minute!”) was one of the hardest.

And when I walked into Temple Emanuel on her bat mitzvah day, I was overcome with emotion.

It felt like it was just yesterday that Izzy was working on mastering the Shema, and now she was getting ready to stand in front of her community and become a Bat Mitzvah. I found a seat as the room started to fill up with Izzy’s family and friends, her kehillah. Soon the room filled to capacity and extra chairs had to be brought in.

As Izzy entered, the room became silent. We all stopped humming the niggun (a wordless melody) and watched Izzy make her way up to the bimah. Izzy expertly led the prayers that we had studied together, and I thought of those Sundays spent learning every syllable, every phrase. And all through the service, she remained true to herself, waving to the audience and adding her own comments. I could not have been prouder. Izzy’s bat mitzvah was a huge milestone for her and her family, and I feel so honored to have played a role. And although it was her day, her bat mitzvah was also a reflection of the community and the love that surrounds Izzy and her family.

Working with Izzy through Gateways helped me decide what I want to do with my life. Seeing how happy music makes her inspired me to attend Ithaca College and major in Recreational Therapy. I can’t wait to spend my life working with and teaching others like Izzy, people who do things in their own unique ways. Even though we no longer see each other every Sunday, Izzy continues to motivate me to learn more and to pursue opportunities to find the unique strengths in everyone I encounter.

 

 This article originally appeared on JewishBoston.com.