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Swinging Open the Gates for a Different Kind of Bar/Bat Mitzvah Training

September 27, 2010

A bar or bat mitzvah is something a Jewish child really looks forward to. But is a typical class setting right for every child? Meet Hannah who, like so many others, was able to celebrate this important Jewish milestone thanks to Gateways' innovative Bar/Bat Mitzvah Program.

Girl holds the Torah at her Bat MitzvahJune 13 of this year a very special event took place at the Marriott in Newton, Massachusetts. Hannah Trombly was certainly not the first area teenager to have her bat mitzvah there, but that day was the culmination of a transformative two-year journey for the Newton eighth-grader.

Her mother Amy Trombly, tutor Michelle Gary and Hannah herself all agree:Hannah did not want to join the bar/bat mitzvah class at Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, which provides Jewish learning programs for children with special needs.

"I kept telling them I didn’t belong there," Hannah says now. "I didn’t care about being Jewish and Idefinitely didn’t want to go to that class."

It was by all reports a slow thaw for Hannah, an honors student who has Asperger’s Syndrome, a developmental disorder on the autism spectrum. "We witnessed an amazing change, from Hannah simply standing up, to mouthing the words, to reciting them and eventually singing the prayers," Gary recalls. "She even started coming to Gateways’ Mitzvah Mensches, an inclusive social action youth group program."

Hannah’s favorite part of Gateways? "You do fun stuff and you’re always welcome there and the teachers are so nice and friendly and encouraging. There were lessons I learned there that I can use later in life."

One of those lessons, says Gateways Jewish Education Programs Director Nancy Mager who was in the third row that June day, is that students in this class learn what it means to be a Jewish adult. "We want them to understand the responsibilities to take care of themselves, their family and their community, to be a good citizen and good role model," she says. "In addition to learning to read Hebrew -- using Gateways’ innovative multi-sensory technique -- her Torah portion and the prayers, I saw Hannah learn that the values she always had are actually Jewish."

As the day she’d worked so hard for arrived, Hannah admits she was "very nervous." She knew her family and Gateways teachers and friends would be out front and Rabbi Luchans would be by her side. "But I had trouble singing in front of my Hebrew teachers so 100 people would be 100 times worse!"

But it wasn’t.

Like generations of bar and bat mitzvah kids before her, Hannah recited flawlessly the prayers and the Torah portion she’d practiced so many times in class and at home.

"I felt sort of like a celebrity," Hannah says of that day. "And all the encouragement I got at Gateways helped me know I could do it. It was kind of emotional for me…. All my family was there and my Grandma gave me money for my college fund. I felt so proud and a little more grown-up than before."

"Somehow, the practice, support, encouragement and love all came together," says her mom. "I saw Hannah grow up before my eyes. Looking at the young woman who, two years ago, refused to participate in class, standing in front of a crowd of close friends and family, reading her Torah portion and chanting her prayers, was a moment that was so full of pride and love, it is something I will carry with me for the rest of my life. I know how hard Hannah worked and how much effort she put into those few moments … Hannah learned what I already knew, that if she can do this, she can do anything else she sets her mind to."

Category: Profiles

Tagged under: Bat Mitzvah, B'nei Mitzvah, Inclusion, Profile, Personal Story


Their Rite of Passage

By Peter Schworm, Boston Globe Staff
January 27, 2008

child wearing tallit and adaptive aids, with tefillin; tutor with hearing aidsphoto by Erik Jacobs/Jacobs Photographic

NEWTON - Tracing his finger across the laminated page, his eyes scanning the Hebrew script, young Noah Bittner chanted a passage from the Torah. He sang softly and slowly, rarely straying from a monotone, but was able to recite an entire Genesis verse without pause, drawing praise from his tutor.

"That was so good, Noah," said Silvia Golijov, raising her hand for a high-five. "I knew you could do it."

Bittner, a 12-year-old with autism, glanced up and gently tapped her hand without a smile, then silently looked back down at the page.

Across the room at Hebrew College, about a dozen children with a range of developmental disabilities worked with individual tutors in preparation for their bar and bat mitzvahs. Students with autism and intellectual impairments learn, to the best of their ability, to read in Hebrew from the Torah and lead the congregation in prayer, and to grasp the principles of their faith and their commitment to it.

Founded in 1999 by parents for children who had trouble attending regular Hebrew school, the weekly hour-long class is the only program in New England that prepares special-needs students to participate in the coming-of-age ceremony. Some practice for two years, painstakingly memorizing the Hebrew alphabet and endlessly reciting verses, for the moment they are called to the Torah.

"For any religious practice to be credible, it has to be accessible to everyone," said Erik Bittner, Noah's father, who created the program for his other son Nathan, a 15-year-old with autism.

The program, which includes a Sunday school for 45 children with special needs, has grown steadily and now draws students across Massachusetts. Twenty students have celebrated bar and bat mitzvahs, and another six plan to take part in the rite of passage this year. Ceremonies vary depending on observances and students' abilities - some students give a brief speech and answer questions from a rabbi, while others read just a short passage.

Arlene Remz, executive director of Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, a Newton nonprofit group that runs the program, said the classes give students with special needs the chance to achieve a milestone extremely rare among children with disabilities.

"Their parents just assumed they wouldn't participate in Jewish education," she said. "This fills that void."

Nationally, synagogues and Jewish organizations are increasingly reaching out to children with intellectual impairments, said Becca Hornstein, executive director of The Council For Jews With Special Needs and a national expert on the topic.

"It's been exponential," she said.

Synagogues were traditionally reluctant to skirt strict rabbinical rules to make accommodations for children who could not read or recite prayers. But beginning in the 1970s, parents who fought for inclusion in public schools began pressing for expanded opportunities in Jewish education, she said.

But many synagogues remain skeptical, said Scott Sokol, who directs Hebrew College's special education program. "There's a lot of resistance," he said.

"There are a lot of sad stories of parents of children with special needs feeling disenfranchised from their synagogue." With a patient, flexible approach, students with cognitive impairments can learn about faith and find ways to express it, Sokol said.

Bittner said that many people wrongly assume that children like Nathan and Noah are not only unable to prepare for bar mitzvah, they don't want to. But he said both of his sons, who learned Hebrew at a young age, have found comfort and meaning in the classes.

"We have found Nathan and Noah very much want to learn, if it's made accessible and meaningful to them," Bittner said.

Hebrew College is the only college in the country that offers a program in Jewish special education, and several of its students are tutors. Others are volunteers like Rachel Chafetz, a 36-year-old who said introducing special-needs students to the Jewish faith has strengthened her own.

"I learned that everything is possible," she said. She recalled telling a student the Biblical parable of a talking donkey who can see an angel that its master cannot. The student, who has Down syndrome and had his bat mitzvah in June, replied that it was just like the talking donkey in the "Shrek" movies.

Students with special needs, excluded from many everyday experiences, cherish the sense of belonging and kinship that runs through the class, tutors, and parents said.

Josh Beshansky, a 12-year-old with autism, fidgets as he reads aloud from flash cards of Hebrew letters. He then slowly recited a Torah verse, retracing his steps when he realized his mistakes, and celebrating when he finished. "I did it, I did it!" he exclaimed. At the end of the class, students read their Torah portions to the group to practice speaking before a crowd. When it was Noah's turn, he shyly walked to the center of the room, and began to sing.

Leaning over the text, he sang more fully than in practice, with a wider range. After singing the last line, "And Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord," he remained still, his eyes down. When he heard people clapping, he looked up, scanned the crowd, and softly smiled.

Category: News

Tagged under: b'nei mitzvah, Boston Globe