Helena's Triumph: A Special Needs Bat Mitzvah Story

Deborah Fineblum Raub, for Gateways

Reprinted from The Jewish Advocate

Helena Schreibman is comfortable at Congregation Mishkan Tefila. After all, each week she takes her Gateways: Access to Jewish Education B’nei Mitzvah classes here, coming in all the way from her home in Winthrop.  Each week she’s worked with her tutor learning to read Hebrew and prayers and each week she’s practiced with her fellow students the fine points of a service such as the blessings and Torah procession.

Helena with Rabbi and her Bat MitzvahBut the 9th grader never thought she’d be having her bat mitzvah here. Her mother’s unexpected passing in April 2009 and a series of conflicts had pushed Helena’s bat mitzvah off again and again at the family’s home congregation, Temple Tifereth Israel in Winthrop. But this time when her dad, Nat, made a date, May 9, 2012, it stuck.

And the event was the product of incredible teamwork. “It really does take a village to raise a child, and this day is proof,” remarked Arlene Remz from the bimah. Remz heads up Gateways, which provides students with special needs like Helena a Jewish education tailored specifically for them.  “The Gateways community has been with you in tough times and has now come to celebrate your bat mitzvah with you,” Remz said.

And celebrate they did. The chapel was filled with Gateways students and their parents, beaming at Helena.  As she led into the opening words of Ma Tovu, Helena looked up with a huge grin when everyone chimed in, the Gateways kids singing the loudest of all.

“Helena, today is a day you and your family and friends have looked forward to for many years,” said Mishkan Tefila Rabbi Leonard Gordon. “I know how much this moment means to you and all you did to make it happen. Helena, your mother, Michelle, would have wanted us to invoke her blessing on this occasion. This ritual marks the fulfillment of one of her hopes ... As the rabbi at Congregation Mishkan Tefila and a friend of Gateways, I am especially delighted to join with your tonight and share our joy in hosting this service. May this be the first of many such moments we share.”

Nancy Mager, who directs Gateways’ Jewish Education Programs and has worked with Helena over the past several years, was the next to speak. “You have such a positive attitude, you make friends wherever you go,” she said, adding that Helena is determined to continue her Jewish Education next year in both the Sunday program and Gateways’ Mitzvah Mensches youth group, where she’s already an active participant.

But on this day, like generations of b’nei mitzvot before her, Helena ducked the candies being thrown her way and the Gateways kids, like generations before them, wasted little time collecting them.

As the congregation moved to the social hall for the celebration, the “village” Remz had referred to was in full flower.  The buffet dinner had been organized by the Mishkan Telfila Sisterhood, the cake was a gift from Helena’s tutor, Michelle Gary, and Schreibman cousin and photographer David Fox manned the camera, while the colorful centerpieces had been crafted at the Mishkan Tefila’s Religious School’s recent Mitzvah Day.

“Everyone did something to make it special for the family and it all came together,” said Laurie Gershkowitz who, along with Sharon Diamond and Diane Jaye, organized the dinner and party. Helena and classmate at her Bat Mitzvah

But none of the behind-the-scenes grown-up planning seemed to matter at the moment. As her Gateways friends lifted Helena high on her chair, she threw back her head and laughed, without an ounce of fear.  

“When I saw her reading and singing up there, I was incredibly proud of her,” said Helena’s teacher at Winthrop High School, Chris Donnelly, who’d made the trek out to witness his student experience her special day. “I was really, really impressed.”

In fact, besides Helena’s father and grandmother, no one beamed brighter than her teachers and her tutor.

“When other kids get up and say the blessings at their bar or bat mitzvah, it’s pretty easy for them,” said tutor Michelle Gary. “But Helena must have practiced the brachas before and after the Torah reading thousands of times over the last couple years. Never once did she get frustrated or give up. And you know what? She did them perfectly. It’s just that most people who heard her could not have known how much went into it. If they did, they would have seen it for what it really was. It really was a triumph.”

Category: Profiles

Tagged under: bat mitzvah, b'nei mitzvah, congregation mishkan tefila