by Rochelle Kellman, Gateways Institutional Relations Manager and Tutor (Former)
“Amen,” Temana chanted beautifully, after reciting with confidence the blessings after the Torah. She lifted her eyes and scanned the congregation surrounding her and smiled. Did I catch a glimpse of a sigh? Or perhaps I was imagining a shared sigh of wonder that Temana had arrived successfully at the completion of her bat mitzvah responsibilities. Looking around the room, I saw a myriad of smiling faces. Her parents beamed with pride; her older sister’s face expressed joy and relief, as she could well appreciate the amount of work put in to succeed; her fellow b’nei mitzvah students, who have progressed alongside her in this shared experience, together with the rabbi, family and friends relishing this joyous moment. And then, a rain of soft candy ricocheted through the room towards Temana as she was being shielded by the rabbi’s tallit. Cheers of “Mazal Tov” and “Yasher koach” reverberated throughout the room. The smaller children pounced on the fallen goodies, stuffing them into their mouths and pockets.
Arriving at this point culminates a journey that Temana had started a year and a half ago at the Gateways B’nei Mitzvah program. Gateways prepares students with special educational needs for their bar/bat mitzvah with a combination of individual tutoring, classroom activities and a weekly prayer service. When Temana and I first discussed her plans to study for her bat mitzvah, she told me that the whole thing seemed like a dream to her; but because she had seen her sister Yannik go through with me as her tutor, she could see herself making this dream real. We approached our task one step at a time, beginning with learning the Hebrew Alef Bet with the help of Marion Green’s mnemonics for each letter and vowel. From there, we slowly progressed into reading words like shabbat and abba. Temana always took pleasure in asking for the meaning of each word. We giggled when some words sounded similar to English words like “car.” (The same sounding word in Hebrew means “cold.”) During class time, led by gifted special education teacher, Rebecca Redner, we sat with all the other students and their tutors in the program to chant the tefilot in the same order to be expected during a Shabbat morning prayer service.
When Temana was reading quite fluently, the time had come for her to learn how to chant her bat mitzvah Torah portion. We spent some time discussing the story that appeared in her portion—Moses presenting the Ten Commandments to the Israelites at Mount Sinai—and then we waded knee-deep into unfamiliar words and the rising and falling notes (called trope) that would allow her to chant this Torah portion in the way tradition dictates. When Temana saw the paragraph from which she was to read, she expressed anxiety at the enormity of the task. We struggled at first when we tackled each new verse, but soon celebrated with “high-fives,” as she mastered one verse after another. A couple of months before the date of her bat mitzvah, Temana donned a beautiful tallit, hand-made especially for this occasion, and recited the blessings in class. From there, she proceeded to read her portion. At first she read timidly, but, as the weeks passed, her confidence grew and her focus sharpened. I was amazed at her poise and dedication even when she experienced a setback.
The day of her bat mitzvah arrived. Seated amongst her family, I felt the anticipation rising in Temana, who was ready to conduct her part of the service. Knowing how well prepared she was, I had no doubts she was ready to take her place amongst the many generations before her who have reached this milestone.
Yasher koach, Temana!