Lao Tzu once said, “A journey of one thousand miles begins with a single step.” And what a journey it has been. When Debbie was four years old I pulled her out of her Hebrew preschool program. The children in the group put my Kindergarten class to shame. They were practically perfect in every way – a class full of little Mary Poppins clones. Debbie stuck out like a sore thumb. She wouldn’t sit quietly. She wasn’t interested in making the craft and she couldn’t have cared less about the snack. All she wanted to do was play with the toys. It wasn’t long before I realized that even with my support this was not the program for her.
Fast forward about two years. We started at a Hebrew school that was based at our local library. Debbie went twice a month while Joey went weekly. I stayed with Debbie and this time around she was interested in listening to the story. She made the crafts with my assistance and she at least tried the snack each time. Her teacher marveled at how far she had come and couldn’t wait for her to return to the program the following year. And then the shit hit the fan. In November of 2010, Deb began to have repeated bouts of strep. By March of 2011, she had her tonsils removed. Because she was in a biweekly program, she missed a lot of Hebrew school in those five or so months. By the time we were finally able to get back into the routine, the year was practically over. Debbie had a hard time readjusting, and unfortunately, this led to us parting ways with the program.
I decided to “Hebrew home school” Joey and Debbie. That basically meant we went to synagogue for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippor. We celebrated Chanukah by lighting the menorah and when spring came we participated in Passover Seders and only ate Kosher for Passover foods for the week. It worked for us for about two years and I pushed aside the guilt I was feeling for not making Hebrew school a priority. I could hear my mom, may she rest in peace, lecturing me about the importance of maintaining Jewish traditions and our heritage and…I ignored her “nagging tone.” I knew I was letting my emotions and feelings get the best of me. At that point, however, my pride was more important than the kids going to Hebrew school. Besides, I knew that at least Joey was going to have a bar mitzvah. I just needed to figure out how I was going to make that happen.
During the summer of 2012, Joey started bar mitzvah lessons with Mr. Joe, a Jewish officiant, who tutored kids and presided over their bar and bat mitzvah services. Many kids were like mine – Jewish but unaffiliated with a synagogue. Mr. Joe also helped children who have special needs become a bar or bat mitzvah. This was important to me because, although I wasn’t totally thinking Debbie could have a bat mitzvah, I wanted to have the option just in case. Mr. Joe told me to call him when I thought Debbie might be ready and I put that idea into the back of my mind.
When Joey started taking lessons, we brought Debbie with us. At first she would sit for a REALLY short time before leaving the room. As the weeks went on, however, she sat in on the lesson longer and longer until one day she sat and listened the entire time. By the time Joey’s big day had rolled around, she was able to sit and participate throughout the whole service. People were amazed! I knew she could do it though because I had witnessed her growth during that year. I thought that maybe she could become a bat mitzvah but then for some reason I let the idea go.
Then last year I seized the opportunity to have Debbie become a bat mitzvah. It was literally a snap decision. I decided to ask her if she wanted to do it and she said that she did. I called Mr. Joe and he said that without a doubt Debbie could do it and he would help her succeed. And succeed she did!
We started lessons in May of 2015 and we practiced weekly both at home and at Mr. Joe’s house. Debbie persevered. She learned a variety of songs and prayers and her Torah and Haftorah portions. She also read a speech written by Joey and myself. She read from the Torah, just like any other kid who has ever been bar or bat mitzvahed. She led the service, just like any other kid who has ever been bar or bat mitzvahed. She celebrated with a DJ, dancing, and dinner, just like any other kid who has ever been bar or bat mitzvahed. During the Hora, she went up in the chair, just like any other kid who has ever been bar or bat mitzvahed. We made accommodations along the way and those accommodations helped her succeed!
During her service, Mr. Joe stated that he had witnessed a miracle. The miracle was Debbie transforming from a girl who has autism with severe speech and social impairments to a girl who has autism with severe speech and social impairments who led and participated in her own bat mitzvah service. I can’t thank Mr. Joe enough. He believed in Debbie and he encouraged and supported her during the entire process. It was joyous. It was awesome. It was perfect. I am beyond proud of Debbie because her bat mitzvah was a culmination of a long journey. From being disinterested to celebrated, Debbie walked one thousand miles and it began with a single step.