A Bar or Bat Mitzvah is a sacred rite of passage for Jewish children who are thirteen, marking their transition into becoming an adult member of the congregation. When my twelve-year-old granddaughter started preparing for her Bat Mitzvah, her fifteen-year-old sister, who has a significant language disability and is anxious in front of crowds, requested to have one as well. She claimed she wanted to be on the stage, and her little sister generously agreed to share her big day.
I have been part of and attended many ceremonies in my lifetime, but on February 23, 2019, I experienced emotions I cannot find words to express.
My daughter cautiously broached the topic with Rabbi Rachel Weiss of the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation (JRC) in Evanston, Illinois. In the past, at other congregations, including her older child was a big deal. There was a painful Sunday School experience many years earlier in which she sat in the corner coloring with a teen volunteer, ignored by the teacher and other children. When I asked if there was a better way to include her, I was told the congregation didn’t really do that.
At JRC, becoming part of the religious community was simple. We brought her to services meant for everyone, regardless of differences. All were truly welcome. If she focused on her phone or sat when she was supposed to stand or drank water during the Yom Kippur fast, no one cared. Perhaps it was the feeling of belonging plus her love for all of the music in the service that made her comfortable. She started following the service in the prayer book, and then came her big ask. She wanted to have a Bat Mitzvah like her little sister.
Turns out, if one is flexible and accommodating, technically all she had to do was to be called to the bimah (raised platform used for reading from the Torah) to recite the blessings before and after the Torah reading. She practiced those blessings but we had no idea if she would recite them in front of a congregation. To our amazement, she did, but she did much more.
Rabbi Weiss and Cantor Howard Friedland respectfully asked her if she wanted to carry a Torah. She did. She danced with joy as she proudly carried hers next to her sister. Each time there was an opportunity to participate, they asked if she wanted to try it. Would she let her grandfather wrap her in a tallit (prayer shawl)? She did. Did she want to come up so her parents could tell her how proud they were of her. She did. Would she like to join her little sister on the bimah to receive the priestly benediction? Yes, please.
It took so much courage for Daniella to stand in front of all of our family and friends and to read and chant. Her beautiful singing voice was no longer our special family secret. And we were so proud that Maya was not only willing but excited to have her sister join her for this special ceremony. She even agreed to take on a few extra lines of Torah learning to make this day possible for Daniella. The B’not Mitzvah (plural) was made possible because of Maya’s loyalty, love, and kindness as a caring little sister.
I have been part of and attended many ceremonies in my lifetime, but on February 23, 2019, I experienced emotions I cannot find words to express. This photo says it all.
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.
A very special ceremony indeed, Laurie. You beautifully describe how your congregation allowed Daniella to feel comfortable and accepted as part of the community and Maya to graciously share her special day with her big sister. It warms my heart to read this, even as you cannot find the words to express your own emotions. Those are big feelings.
Thanks, Betsy. Even 4 years later, I still find myself thinking about what a special day that was.
I teared up–and I don’t even know them! Your writing truly captured the experience. (P.S. We’re part of that very inclusive Reconstructionist community; we go to the synagogue in Bennington. VT.)
Thanks, Dale, What Reconstructionism captures is the opportunity to construct your own meaning and values and apply them to the religion. At least for us, it was an open door that allowed our family to belong.
How wonderful Laurie! I understand why Daniella’s bat mitzah was special.
My autistic nephew Michael began attending a Hebrew school class for special needs kids but unfortunately for reasons I thought invalid, his father pulled him out. Thankfully Michael is now in a good placement and thriving. Wishing all the best for Daniella.
Glad your nephew is doing better and thriving. It’s a tough journey to find a sense of belonging for people with disabilities. I know we were lucky to have found the perfect place.
What a beautifully told and moving story about Daniella and Maya. Thanks for sharing it, Laurie. It brightened up my day! And you’re right about that closing picture: it is worth more than a thousand words.
Thanks, Jim. That ceremony will always be very special. Even 4 years later, when I look at the pictures I am moved to tears by how wonderful it was for our family.
We’ve read so many stories about your wonderful grandchildren before, and this one is lovely. How mature of Maya to be willing to share her special day. And what a wonderful rabbi to be so inclusive. (Women rabbis are the best!) The pictures are fabulous, and, as Jim said, worth more than a thousand words.
Thanks Suzy. We are so glad to be part of an inclusive synagogue. The rabbi went to school and skated with my daughters, so when she was hired, we had to join!
Lovely story, Laurie, and thanks for the shout-out to Reconstructionism (or as the movement calls it now, Reconstructing Judaism). This is one more moving but unconventional Bn’ai Mitzvah story. The last Bar Mitzvah at our synagogue was for a boy with an Indian mother and Jewish father. The ceremony was great, and the food at the Oneg was an amazing amalgamation.
Thanks, Marian. Lots of things could use a bit of reconstructing these days.
What a wonderful story! Remarkable how the world can open up when there is love and acceptance. Kudos to the congregation and to the family—and Daniella! Beautiful memory.
It was a very special day and you are right about the importance of love and acceptance, which are sadly in short supply these days.
A sweet tale. And those pictures…the love between Daniella and Maya shines like the sun!
Thanks, Dave. It was one of the most beautiful and meaningful days of my ife.