Gesher Disability Resources did something on Sept. 10 that they haven’t done since 2001. They held a b’nai mitzvah for eight of their members.
It started with a mom asking Amy Hummell, Gesher’s executive director to consider doing the program. And then a week later, another mom asked. “It was the craziest thing,” says Amy. “I’m like, ‘Absolutely; we’ll do it. I don’t know how, but we’ll do it!’”
In October 2019, Amy announced that they would soon be starting classes at the annual Gesher Gala, to invite any who wanted to be involved. Then in December, they held their first official class.
Becca Hornstein, founder and executive director of the Council for Jews With Special Needs (the name of the organization before it changed to Gesher), had created a binder of all the lessons they had done in 2001. Then, it had been an 18-month program, but everyone decided that it didn’t need to be that long, so they condensed it into nine months.
Classes were led by Rabbi Elana Kanter of Women’s Leadership Institute and Stacy Rosenthal, RJE of Congregation Beth Israel. They met in person at CBI in December, January and February and then began online via Zoom in March.
Amy explains that Rabbi Kanter adapted the teachings, including using a memorable phrase to help the students.
“The very first thing that we learned together was Touch. Kiss. Say,” says Rabbi Kanter in the video at the beginning of the service. “How do you remember what you’re supposed to do when you go up for an aliyah to the Torah? We come up to the Torah, we touch the Torah, we kiss our tzit tzit to show our love for the Torah, and then we say the blessings. Touch. Kiss. Say.”
And since the most important thing about the dvar Torah is to share what you have learned and what you want others to know, Rabbi Kanter took the one word that represented what each individual learned and helped them develop two to three sentences about it.
Rabbi Kanter also chose a Torah reading for everyone, and the students learned the blessings before and after.
“Elana became a whiz at Zoom calls, sharing her screen and all of that,” jokes Amy.
“What I love most is the number of volunteers who helped these students get to where they are today,” says Stacy. “Our students tie-dyed tallitot with madrichim from CBI’s Haberkorn Religious School. The tzit tzit were tied by CBI Ma’ayan students, and CBI’s b’nai mitzvah students also wrote handwritten notes of congratulations to our Gesher participants. Numerous volunteers throughout the community helped make this day possible, including more than a dozen clergy members who blessed the b’nai mitzvah students.”
A special guest clergy member joined them from Florida, Rabbi Rony Keller, who started the Simchat Shabbat program with Gesher and who used to be the rabbi at CBI.
After the b’nai mitzvah service, the students and their friends and families went to a closed Zoom group for a celebration that included boxed lunches delivered from Chompie’s, music, pictures and time for the parents to brag about their kids and kvell.
“This service is incredibly important to show that we, as the Phoenix Jewish community, believe that every Jew is entitled to a Jewish education and has the right to celebrate life cycle events,” says Stacy. “We all have our own unique strengths and challenges and yet, when we come together (even virtually), we truly have an opportunity to see the Divine spark in each other.”
Enjoy the video below of the b’nai mitzvah of Bev, Michelle, Lizzy, Stephi, Miriam, Susan, Dustin and Jonathan. Mazel tov!