Jamie's Bat Mitzvah: A Different Voice

Gateways: Access to Jewish Education

Reprinted from Jewish Advocate, September 27, 2013

 Rabbi Keith Stern: What does being a bat mitzvah mean to you?

Jamie: It means that I know a lot about being Jewish. 

Rabbi: What have you done to get ready for your bat mitzvah? 

Jamie: I practiced saying prayers, learned about my Torah portion, went to Gateways, met with the Rabbi, and did a mitzvah project.  

While this may sound like a typical exchange between a rabbi and his pre-bat mitzvah congregant, it is in fact so much more. Jamie Davidge, 13, has cerebral palsy and this conversation consisted of her rabbi asking her questions out loud and Jamie selecting her answers from her augmentative communication device (a computer that speaks for her) that she uses to communicate. 

Jamie’s becoming a bat mitzvah marks the culmination of a journey for the Davidge family, who had to pursue a long and winding path to get to this day. Families of typical Jewish children either enroll them in their congregation’s religious school or send them to day school to receive a Jewish education. They hire a tutor and meet with their clergy to prepare for b’nei mitzvah using the blueprint laid out by their congregation. This system works for most families. But for families with children with more severe needs, the idea of being able to prepare their children for a meaningful ceremony oftentimes seems unrealistic or unattainable. 

Jamie is just one example of how the Greater Boston Jewish community has made an effort to embrace all its community members. In her conversation with her rabbi, Jamie mentioned Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, the local central agency for making Jewish education accessible to all Jewish students. Her journey began when her parents learned about Gateways’ Sunday Program which is a self-contained religious school for children who need a more intimate learning environment and are unable to thrive in the synagogue religious school setting. There, Jamie attended classes and was assisted by a one-on-one aide. As she grew to pre-bat mitzvah age, she joined the B’nei Mitzvah Program on Wednesday evenings, where she was part of a small class and worked one-on-one with a Gateways tutor. 

Gateways provided Jamie and her family with a structured program where she received individualized support and differentiated instruction. She was also lucky that Gateways received funding from the Boston Jewish Community Women’s Fund, enabling her teachers to create a Special Path to Bat Mitzvah, a girl-centric curriculum focused on highlighting strong Jewish women (including women with disabilities) and the contributions they have made. “Jamie was really the impetus that prompted us to apply for the grant,” says Nancy Mager, Director of Gateways’ Jewish Education Programs. “Having her in our program challenged us to identify the unique needs of girls with special needs. We wanted to make accessible to our girls the best of what is out there for typical bat mitzvah aged girls.” 

Although Jamie did not participate in Temple Beth Avodah in Newton’s religious school, she and her family remained connected with the congregation through the process. She submitted a profile to the temple newsletter (like all b’nei mitzvah in the congregation are expected to do), sharing news about her bat mitzvah. 

“Rabbi Keith Stern was an incredible, supportive partner in the process,” recalls Mager. “In our initial meeting [about Jamie’s bat mitzvah], he made it clear that it was important to the synagogue that Jamie felt at home and was celebrated for who she is and what she knows. Her disability was always secondary.” 

“Jamie has been a member of Temple Beth Avodah since she was a baby,” says Rabbi Stern.  “As she has grown up, I have been endlessly amazed by her tenacity and the dedication of her parents. Her excitement over her Bat Mitzvah was positively electric! She showed this with an extraordinary smile and, after every completed prayer, a “Yesher Koach!” straight from her sound board.” 

Understanding and respecting that Jamie’s ceremony would look different than a typical service, Rabbi Stern and the temple staff worked with Gateways’ staff and Jamie’s family to create a ceremony that would enable Jamie to participate meaningfully. This meant restructuring the typical service to include everything she had learned, but in a shorter length of time so Jamie wouldn’t become fatigued; relocating from the large sanctuary to a space that was less intimidating; and using Gateways materials to aid in creating a meaningful dvar Torah.  

“Since Jamie cannot say the prayers herself, instead of using the preset voice of her device, we recorded her sister Anna reciting them,” explains Rebecca Redner, Jamie’s teacher at Gateways. “We recorded Anna at the Davidge’s home with Jamie sitting and listening and grinning the whole time. After each prayer was recorded, Jamie insisted on trying it out. She was delighted with our decision to use her sister’s voice.” 

When asked how she felt when she first learned that she was going to have a bat mitzvah, Jamie said “Confused”. When asked later, she answered “Excited and nervous”.  When her rabbi asked her how she thought she would do on the day of her bat mitzvah, she said “Great!” 

Redner is not surprised. “I always knew how intelligent Jamie was. She was really the one to push us [Gateways] to create a ceremony that showcased her knowledge and passion,” says Redner. “This is a girl who clearly loves praying and being Jewish, and I am so proud that we could help her learn to her greatest potential and enable her to share it with the community.”   

“I am truly awed by Jamie and the effort she expends to express herself,” says Rabbi Stern. “Her siblings and her parents are remarkable people who deserve halos if Jews ever start giving them out. And I am deeply thankful and proud that Jamie knows that she is a part of a congregational family – a place where she was, and will always be, welcomed.” 

Category: Profiles

Tagged under: bat mitzvah, b'nei mitzvah, Davidge, Rebecca Redner, Dynavox