Determined twins conquer hurdles to chant from the Torah together

When twins Caryn and Lindsey Dolich were 12, their mother asked if they wanted to have a b'not mitzvah. Carefully, she gave them the option of saying no.

Ellen Dolich was worried about putting too much strain on her daughters, particularly since one twin, Lindsey, was severely hearing-impaired. A congenital birth defect in her inner ear had led to Lindsey be coming legally deaf by the age of 4. With a hearing aid, Lindsey could hear faintly, but her mother worried that her daughter would be too shy to stand up in the synagogue and chant from the Torah.

But the girls, who live in Alameda, surprised their mother. Both were determined to participate in the b'not mitzvah ceremony and were focused on achieving their goals.

"I wanted to be bat mitzvahed because my brother and both my parents had been, and I didn't want to break the tradition," said Caryn.

Lindsey added, "I wanted to have something special to remember from when I turned 13."

About six months before the November event, the girls began working with Pamela Rothmann Sawyer, Temple Israel's cantorial soloist. Since the synagogue was in the process of selecting a new rabbi, Sawyer provided continuity in the twins' training. She had prepared many girls for the bat mitzvah ceremony but had never worked with a child who was hearing-impaired.

One of Sawyer's early decisions was to separate the girls. "They each had about 45 minutes a week with me, and I taught them Torah tropes [cantillations]," said Sawyer. "Lindsey reads lips well, and responded well to the up-down indications I gave her for the tropes. Hers did not sound like mine nor like her sister's, but clearly the shape was there."

Ellen Dolich, who writes and publishes a magazine for deaf and hearing-impaired children, praised Sawyer's creative methods in teaching Lindsey. "There are sounds in Hebrew that are difficult to hear and master, even when you're not hearing-impaired. Pam used a lot of hand signals, and got Lindsey to put her hand on her throat and feel the vibrations. She really went the whole nine yards."

Sawyer reported that the girls helped each other with their Torah tropes. "They're really tight," she said. "I would ask Caryn to work on something with her sister and the following week Lindsey would be prepared. They are both very goal-oriented, and wanted to do the best possible job."

In fact, said Sawyer, a characteristic of this b'not mitzvah preparation was that "when I asked them to do something, I never had the hint of resistance." Both twins requested extra sessions with Sawyer, which she was happy to give.

"It was rewarding seeing them be so supportive of each other and watching Lindsey overcome her struggles," she said. Of her training with Sawyer, Lindsey said, "I was self-conscious about singing, but Pam helped me overcome it."

On the day of the event, said Sawyer, "watching them both read from the Torah was a real thrill."

Their mother agreed. "It went very smoothly — I was really proud that Lindsey chanted. It was amazing to see the teamwork, and how they helped each other."

Rabbi Allen Bennett, who officiated and worked with the girls in the last few months before the b'not mitzvah, reported that "the girls were characteristically supportive of each other, and delighted with each other's performances."

The Temple Israel ceremony was followed by a lunch reception at Scott's in Oakland, which approximately 50 adults and 50 children attended. For Caryn, the day was about "becoming an adult in the Jewish community," and she remembered that "many people complimented my sister and me, which made me feel really good."

Lindsey said that the ceremony went fast for her, and that after her initial nervousness, she really enjoyed it. "When I'm 50, I'll remember all the hard work we put into it, the ceremony and how nervous I was. I'll remember the party, and how much fun everyone had. It was a perfect day for me, and something to remember!"