A bar or bat mitzvah is something a Jewish child really looks forward to. But is a large-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.
June 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 I definitely 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 Coordinator 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.”
There are still openings for this fall’s Gateways Bar/Bat Mitzvah Program, which prepares kids with a variety of learning disabilities and other special needs who, like Hannah, would benefit from its small class size and individualized learning plans. The class welcomes students age 11 and up from across Greater Boston, and runs each Thursday afternoon from 4:30-6:00 in Newton.
Want to hear more? Contact Jewish Education Programs Coordinator Nancy Mager at firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-630-9010, ext. 104.