Touch, kiss, say: On Thursday, Sept. 10, eight students from Gesher Disability Resources touched the Torah, kissed their tzitzit, said the blessings and became bar and bat mitzvot.
“It’s such a blessing to gather what I believe is truly a community-wide celebration,” said Rabbi Elana Kanter, director of The Women’s Learning Institute, who led the service from the sanctuary of Congregation Beth Israel.
The Thursday morning service represented the end of nine months of hard work and study, and the revival of a program that Gesher Disability Resources last organized in 2002.
“Today, we are so excited to call to the Torah eight students who have worked so hard for the past nine months,” said Amy Hummell, executive director of Gesher Disability Resources. “This is something that we did 10 years ago, back when the agency was Council for Jews with Special Needs, and it was time again. Our parents asked for it, our families asked for it, so here we are.”
In February, Gesher students began a series of 10 classes that taught them everything they needed to know to become bar and bat mitzvah, from tallit making, Shabbat and prayer to words of Torah and their own Hebrew names. The program underwent a dramatic shift in March, when Gesher’s classes and events, along with most of the community, moved online at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Finally, on Thursday, Sept. 10, Miriam Goldman, Jonathan Mills, Susan Sorgen, Michelle Bassala, Bev Bassala, Lizzy Richardson, Stephi Richardson and Dustin Pollinger were called to the Torah.
One special lesson that Kanter explained to attendees at the start of the service was “touch, kiss, say.”
“I’m going to let everybody else in on a secret that only the Gesher families and the Gesher students know right now: the meaning of touch, kiss, say,” Kanter said. “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 tzitzit to show our love for the Torah and then we say the blessings: touch, kiss, say.”
The Torah reading from each bar and bat mitzvah was pre-recorded in the Congregation Beth Israel sanctuary to allow for social distancing, and shown in a montage on a livestream.
For their d’var Torahs, each of the b’nai mitzvot chose one or two words from the parsha and shared what it meant to them. Among the words they chose were hazak (to be strong), ahava (love), bracha (blessing), ematz (to be brave) and brit (promise).
“The word of Torah I chose is brit, the special promises we make to
each other,” Pollinger wrote. “I promise to try my best, make good choices
and keep my promises.”
“The word of Torah I have chosen is bracha/blessing,” Beverly Bassala wrote. “The opportunity for my daughter and myself to become b’nai mitzvah and to share the experience together is a blessing.”
When it came time for the family blessings, Kanter asked parents to place their hands on their children’s heads and invited rabbis and cantors from across Greater Phoenix to join her on the livestream to deliver the blessing.
“There are rabbis and cantors all over Phoenix and Scottsdale and the East Valley and the West Valley, and even as far as Florida ... They, together with me and your parents, are going to give you a special blessing,” Kanter said. “So you are going to be blessed by the entire Jewish community of Phoenix this morning.”
The screen filled with over a dozen video feeds as those rabbis joined the ceremony, including Rabbi Stephen Kahn, Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin, Rabbi Jason Bronowitz and Cantor Seth Ettinger of CBI, Rabbi Jeremy Schneider of Temple Kol Ami, Rabbi Mark Bisman of Congregation Or Tzion, Rabbi Mari Chernow of Temple Chai, Rabbi John Linder and Rabbi Debbie Stiel of Temple Solel, Rabbi Bonnie Sharfman of Congregation Kehillah, Rabbi Dean Shapiro of Temple Emanuel of Tempe, Rabbi Brodie Aberson of Temple Beth Sholom of the East Valley, Rabbi Suzy Stone of Hillel at ASU, Rabbi Michael Wasserman of The New Shul and Rabbi Rony Keller of Congregation B’nai Israel in Boca Raton, Florida.
“According to the rabbis, peace is the blessing of all blessings,” Kanter said. “It includes every single other blessing, and that’s what all of these rabbis and cantors have joined me and your parents in giving you. And what a well-deserved blessing it is.”
As Ettinger led the assembled minyan in singing “Siman Tov Umazal Tov,” Kanter removed her tallit, and she, Hummell and Rosenthal held it and danced in a circle in the CBI sanctuary while the rabbis and cantors on Zoom clapped along.
Kanter closed the service by wishing the b’nai mitzvah “a mazel tov, mazel tov and more mazel tovs.”
At the Zoom party that followed the livestream, the new bar and bat mitzvot gathered with aunts and uncles, grandparents and friends to celebrate. The screen filled with dozens of video feeds and a happy, overlapping chatter of greetings as people spotted each other on screen.
More congratulatory messages filled the chat: “Hello everyone many many many mazel tovs!” Jesse S. wrote.
“So very PROUD of you all,” Judy Gates said.
“Congratulations to everyone involved with pulling off this special day. Great job,” Joyce Berk-Lippincott wrote.
Families on the Zoom call were overwhelmed with pride for their nieces and nephews, children and grandchildren. From the moment Dustin was born, his grandmother said, “I knew that this day would come, without a shadow of a doubt.”
Among the participants were Becca Hornstein and Joyce Berk-Lippincott, the founders of the Council for Jews with Special Needs, Gesher’s original iteration. For Hornstein, the ceremony on Thursday represented decades
of work to make Jewish spaces more inclusive.
“The opportunity to give young men and young women the chance to have their bar and bat mitzvahs when they were denied that opportunity in another age of less inclusion and less compassion is something that I know Joyce Berk and I are so proud that this agency is able to offer,” Hornstein said. “So to all of you wonderful b’nai mitzvah members, this was a blessed and beautiful moment, and I’m thrilled that I was able to share it with you.”
Berk-Lippincott also applauded the b’nai mitzvahs and the hard work it took to reach this moment.
“It takes a village,” Berk-Lippincott said. “It’s a blessing for all of you and for all of us to take part in [your b’nai mitzvah] and to know that you have learned and enjoyed and been part of the Jewish community.” JN