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

Michelle and Ron Herzlinger

A Place for Julia

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!

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