Isabella's Bat Mitzvah: A Mother's Reflections

Cara Coller

When a child is medically complex, you learn who your village truly is. And what an amazing village we have!

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.

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