As you know, in anticipation of my “bar mitzvah” year at Ramat Shalom, I have been reflecting on the many people and moments that have defined the past 13 years. Today, I want to focus on the 536 (and counting!) bar/bat mitzvah students that I have learned with over the years. Each of these students, in their own unique way, has had an impact upon me. I consider myself so blessed that I am still in touch with many of these students and just officiated at the wedding of two of them, Samantha Moore and Shep Berg! As I said to them under the chuppah last month: “How is it that I have not gotten older but you both have grown up!?”
It is no secret that I did not become a bar mitzvah until I was 26 years old. My family was not affiliated with a synagogue as I grew up. Becoming a bar mitzvah was not something that I was interested in when I was 13. However, a few years later, when I was 16, I decided that, in fact, I did want to prepare for and become a bar mitzvah. So, I went to the local synagogue and met with the rabbi who proceeded to tell me that in order to become a bar mitzvah, I would have to begin studying with the 2nd grade Hebrew class. Needless to say, I decided not to pursue the bar mitzvah path at that time. The experience left a terrible taste in my mouth and made me feel out of place in the synagogue world.
Jumping ahead ten years and, fortunately, a few wonderful, nurturing Jewish mentors later, that 16 years old kid who was told he had to enter the 2nd grade Hebrew class was accepted to and ready to begin rabbinical school. As I prepared for the beginning of this exciting academic and spiritual journey, I made two promises to myself:
- When I become a rabbi, I will never tell a 16 year who wants to become a bar mitzvah that he has to begin studying with a 2nd grade class! Instead, I will do everything in my power to make anyone who wants to find his/her place in the synagogue and Jewish community feel as welcome as possible.
- I will do everything in my power to insure that anyone who wants a bar/bat mitzvah can have one.
I still work very hard to fulfill these promises. It is one of the reasons we have created The Center for Jewish Life that is designed to create meaningful entry points into Judaism for the unaffiliated community.
As I said, each of the 536 bar/bat mitzvah students that I have studied with have had an impact upon me and I am grateful for them all! This being said, this week, I want to focus on a few students who have allowed me to realize that over the past 13 years I have been living up to the promises I made to myself.
Many years ago, I was visited by parents who were synagogue shopping. They wanted to talk about their son having his bar mitzvah at Ramat Shalom. But, as they explained, there were some “problems”. Their son, they told me, was in a wheelchair, had physical limitations and learning disabilities. They began to tell me that others had told them that having a bar mitzvah was not a possibility and so, they would not be upset if I told them we could not accommodate their son. I interrupted them and without hesitation told them that it would be my honor to officiate at their son’s bar mitzvah at Ramat Shalom! They were overjoyed. As they thanked me, they explained that they would pick a weekday service as it would probably not be appropriate for their son to lead a Shabbat morning service given his challenges. In response, I told them that the only way I would agree to do this bar mitzvah would be if their son led a Shabbat morning service with me and the Cantor and stood before his entire community like every other child who becomes a bar/bat mitzvah at Ramat Shalom. Their joy turned to shock as they took in this news. Their son, I explained, had the right to a Saturday morning bar mitzvah and we would honor this right. And we did and it was incredible.
The bar mitzvah of this young man was truly inspirational. He had so many challenges in life but overcame them all to become a bar mitzvah. Over the years other kids with limitations much more severe than his, with challenges that would make some think that a bar/bat mitzvah ceremony was out of the question, have stood before our community and proudly become bar/bat mitzvah. The way all of these kids have excelled on the bimah shows us that anyone who wants a bar/bat mitzvah CAN have one. Some disabled children wrestle with severe challenges that make it extremely difficult for them to communicate their wishes and desires and, because of this, I have been asked how I know that these kids really want a bar/bat mitzvah. As someone who was been lucky enough to stand with these kids on the bimah and look into their eyes as they celebrate this tremendous milestone, I can tell you without any hesitation that these kids know exactly what is going on, they want to be up there on the bimah and they are really proud of themselves.
February is known as Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month and was created to bring awareness to what some call the “invisible minority” in the Jewish community. I am proud to say that over the past 13 years, some of the most inspiring moments I have experienced on our bimah have been with members of this “invisible minority” and here, at Ramat Shalom, they are very visible, very much embraced and very proud that they became bar/bat mitzvah!
To all of my 536 (and counting!) bar/bat mitzvah students – thank you for making me the rabbi I am today!