Disabled adults come of age and celebrate bnai mitzvah

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Judy Berman sings the Sh'ma in a shaky, high-pitched voice, but she hits every note, more or less. She's happy to show off her favorite prayer — the prayer that makes her think of "one God," she says, turning to her sister for approval.

"That's right," Miriam Rosenberg says, smiling at her sister. "One God."

Berman, 50, is excited about having her bat mitzvah but she is scared too, she says, and hides her face in her hands. Then she peeks out between her spread fingers. "Can my friends come?"

Rosenberg assures her that they can, but that won't be for some time yet.

Along with about a dozen other developmentally disabled adults, Berman spent months preparing for a group b'nai mitzvah, which was held in June at the Conservative Chevrei Tzedek congregation in Park Heights, Md.

At the preparation class, each student planned to do something, from simple activities like holding the Torah, or even just opening the ark, to more complex tasks like reciting a prayer or perhaps even reading a few lines of Torah.

Whatever task they accomplished was perfect, Rosenberg says, "because that is what they can do."

The b'nai mitzvah for adults with special needs is a joint project of the Council on Jewish Education Services and the Park Heights Jewish Community Center. Amian Frost Kelemer, a coordinator in the CJES department of special education, says many developmentally disabled young people in Baltimore already receive some bar or bat mitzvah training at Gesher LaTorah, a community school where she serves as principal.

But that school has only been around since 1967, and many of the adults who took part in the June b'nai mitzvah are in their 40s and 50s, and so never had the chance to study there.

"For many of these people, being Jewish can be a bright spot in their lives," Kelemer explains. "We wanted them to have this chance to participate."

Because many people with developmental disabilities reside in group homes and assisted living situations, "they very often live in a Christian world, surrounded by caregivers and housemates who are not Jewish," says Leslie Pomerantz, director of membership services at the Park Heights JCC. "At the same time, they feel proud of being Jewish, it's something that is important to them."

Since July 1996, the JCC has offered a Shabbat Shalom program, making the Sabbath come alive for people with special needs. The group b'nai mitzvah was the culminating event in that program.

Services at Chevrei Tzedek are ordinarily led by the congregants, along with Rabbi Gila Ruskin, so that when members of the b'nai mitzvah group opened the ark, carried the scrolls and recited the blessings, they fulfilled exactly the same role the other congregants usually play, according to Sue Korman, immediate past president and an adviser to the board of the synagogue.

In fact, Chevrei Tzedek was the ideal synagogue to host the event, according to Michelle Walters, a special education teacher who instructed the b'nai mitzvah students. "At Chevrei Tzedek, they are very accepting, and they expect everyone to participate at whatever level they can," she says.

Kelemer, of CJES, says the adult b'nai mitzvah program may be repeated in coming years. In the meantime, the dozen or so people who celebrated their Jewish coming-of-age in June will have taken a giant leap forward in their own religious lives.

"Each will have something they can then carry with them into any synagogue where they choose to participate," Kelemer says. "They will have a way to express their connection to Judaism."