volunteer working with student

An Invitation to Opened Gates

By Shoshana Cohen

Every Sunday morning for two years, I tutored Izzy, a student with learning differences.

I returned to my dorm room with a piece of mail in my hand. This wasn’t just any piece of mail; it was the invitation to my Gateways student Izzy’s bat mitzvah. This invitation felt like so much more than a few slips of paper because my connection to Izzy changed the course of my life.

Every Sunday morning for two years, I would jump out of bed, eager and ecstatic to go to Gateways: Access to Jewish Education’s Sunday Program to tutor Izzy, a student with learning differences. Together, we began slowly learning the Shema, one of Judaism’s most important prayers. We practiced and sang, month after month, until one Sunday morning, Izzy recited the whole prayer by herself without any assistance. It was her hard work and her accomplishment, but I remember coming home that day and telling my parents and my friends about how proud I was and how incredible it felt to have been a part of Izzy’s breakthrough.

Izzy and Shoshana

After that, she started picking up prayers more quickly, and towards the end of our first year working together, Izzy’s parents decided it was time for her to begin preparing for her bat mitzvah. By the end of that year, Izzy had started learning the first of three parts of her Torah portion. The following year was filled with Sundays spent together, learning most of Izzy’s Torah portion and the majority of the prayers in her binder.

Through our time spent together, Izzy and I formed a strong connection. There are many goodbyes that I had to say when I graduated from high school and went off to college, but leaving Izzy (who said, “Bye, Shoshana. See you in a minute!”) was one of the hardest.

And when I walked into Temple Emanuel on her bat mitzvah day, I was overcome with emotion.

It felt like it was just yesterday that Izzy was working on mastering the Shema, and now she was getting ready to stand in front of her community and become a Bat Mitzvah. I found a seat as the room started to fill up with Izzy’s family and friends, her kehillah. Soon the room filled to capacity and extra chairs had to be brought in.

As Izzy entered, the room became silent. We all stopped humming the niggun (a wordless melody) and watched Izzy make her way up to the bimah. Izzy expertly led the prayers that we had studied together, and I thought of those Sundays spent learning every syllable, every phrase. And all through the service, she remained true to herself, waving to the audience and adding her own comments. I could not have been prouder. Izzy’s bat mitzvah was a huge milestone for her and her family, and I feel so honored to have played a role. And although it was her day, her bat mitzvah was also a reflection of the community and the love that surrounds Izzy and her family.

Working with Izzy through Gateways helped me decide what I want to do with my life. Seeing how happy music makes her inspired me to attend Ithaca College and major in Recreational Therapy. I can’t wait to spend my life working with and teaching others like Izzy, people who do things in their own unique ways. Even though we no longer see each other every Sunday, Izzy continues to motivate me to learn more and to pursue opportunities to find the unique strengths in everyone I encounter.

Check out the companion piece, written by Izzy’s mother, here.

This article originally appeared on JewishBoston.com.