By Sandy Slavet
Director, Jewish Life Services for People with Disabilities
Jewish Family & Children’s Service
In many shuls across America, Shabbat morning services are made more joyful by the tradition of Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Thirteen-year-olds, nervous about reading Torah and excited about the party to follow, allow us a glimpse into the future of our Jewish community. It is a lovely ritual, but many in the congregation know that the teen may be there because mom and dad or bubbe and zayde are committed to this tradition: He or she may not have actually “volunteered for the mission.”
When an adult is called to the Torah, it naturally feels different. No party, no balloons, no savings bonds (okay, I’m dating myself) — just an intense desire to be called to the Torah and an intense commitment to learn and lead. When an adult is called to the Torah for the first time, it is a result of self-determination and self-motivation. It is awe-inspiring for those of us who witness it. So it was no surprise that on Saturday, February 2, 2013 (Shabbat Yitro), the congregants and guests at Temple Beth Israel in Waltham were inspired beyond words during Shabbat morning services when a not-so-young woman was called to the Torah for the first time. But not just any woman: a woman with a disability who had spent much of her Jewish life in the margins. A woman who, as of August 2012, did not read any Hebrew and did not know an aleph from a bet; a woman whose eagerness, commitment to the idea of reading Torah, and level of determination showed everyone that there should be no margins in Judaism: there is only the center and every one of us belongs there!
Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JF&CS) is also committed to the idea that there should be no margins in Judaism. When contacted by Rabbi Tracy Nathan of Temple Beth Israel about the possibility of finding a tutor to work with a congregant with a disability who wanted to become a Bat Torah*, we couldn’t say no! Although this is not a service we typically provide, the fact that we are located in Waltham made the logistics easy. Given our agency’s mission and our commitment, Rabbi Nathan made a request we couldn’t refuse. In August of 2012, I began 1:1 tutoring. When I learned that the target date for the Bat Mitzvah was early February 2013, I thought to myself: “No way. There simply isn’t enough time to learn to read Hebrew, learn three to four verses of Torah, learn the blessings before and after the reading, and write a Dvar Torah. Impossible!”
I don’t often like to be proven wrong, but on February 2, 2013, I was delighted to be wrong. What this woman accomplished in six months takes many people several years. What a testament to the human spirit when determination, motivation, and a love of Judaism come together. When we read in the Book of Genesis that we are all created b’tzelem elohim (created in God’s image) and we experience first-hand the amazing journey and ultimate accomplishment of this woman, we get it! And how blessed am I to have been part of it. February is National Jewish Disability Awareness Month: a month that proclaims “no more margins in Judaism!”
*A Jewish person becomes a Bar/Bat Mitzvah when reaching the age of 13, whether or not he/she is called to the Torah at that time. When called to the Torah as an adult, he/she becomes a Bar/Bat Torah.
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