Real Gabriel marked bar mitzvah his way

Gabriel's first cry was high-pitched and catlike, and his appearance alarmed the doctors, who immediately began a battery of tests.

But it wasn't until many hours later that Gabriel's parents, Steve Shatz and Nina Rivkind of Berkeley, found out something was wrong.

"Being new parents we didn't know the tests weren't routine," said Rivkind.

The next day a geneticist gave them the bad news.

Gabriel, who is the inspiration for Sandra R. Curtis' book "Gabriel's Ark," had cri du chat (cat cry), a syndrome caused by a missing segment of the fifth chromosome.

The prognosis was bleak. Gabriel would be mentally retarded, probably physically disabled and could have serious coronary and digestive problems. Some cri du chat babies don't survive childhood.

But Gabriel did. He didn't have any systemic problems, although he has serious mental and physical disabilities.

One of the first issues was how to celebrate Gabriel's birth. Under normal circumstances, he would have had a brit on the eighth day after his Oct. 16, 1980 birth. But for medical reasons, Gabriel couldn't be circumcised in infancy.

"I just assumed that we would do something to mark Gabriel's birth," said Rivkind. "The question was what to do and when to do it."

At the suggestion of Rivkind's mother, Marsha Rivkind Raleigh, they decided to do a naming ceremony, a ritual created for female babies as an alternative to a brit.

But traditional naming ceremonies were inappropriate given Gabriel's circumstances.

"Some of the focus in the [traditional naming] ceremony is the joy of watching the child grow and study Torah and become a bar or bat mitzvah," said Rivkind. "One of the problems of having a mentally retarded child born into the Jewish community is that we are the people of the book. Our focus is so academic. It was very poignant for us. Our child is not going to follow the path that our culture presents as the model."

So they wrote their own service, which expressed both their joy and sadness over Gabriel's birth. Quoting Martin Buber, they talked about the uniqueness of each individual.

At the suggestion of John Rossove, then the associate rabbi at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, the service was put in a Reform movement service bank for other people to use. In the first couple of years alone, there were more than 100 requests for the service from around the world, according to Rivkind.

Thirteen years later, the family was faced with another ritual, the bar mitzvah.

"The question wasn't should we do it. Again the question was how," said Rivkind. "It was important to affirm to Gabriel and our family, and particularly [younger sisters] Naomi and Julia, that, despite his limitations, Gabriel is still a Jew and we honor and celebrate that. He's a human being. He's our son and we love him and hope he reaches his potential, whatever that is."

Gabriel's birthday fell on Shabbat Noah.

"That was the one Torah portion he probably could relate to because he loved animals and animal stories," said Rivkind.

Once again finding themselves in the business of creating a service, Shatz and Rivkind first had to consider what Gabriel could accomplish. They settled on a short, private, Shabbat afternoon service.

Working with Avi Levine, then the rabbi at Berkeley's Congregation Beth El, and Cantor Brian Reich, Shatz and Rivkind decided they would chant the Torah portion and Gabriel's sisters would lead the Veahavtah.

And Gabriel would say the Sh'ma. Rivkind recorded a tape reciting the Sh'ma over and over in Hebrew and English. In between she explained why it is the most important prayer.

Gabriel, who by this time was living in a group home in Walnut Creek, worked on the prayer with his teacher at school.

"When I picked him up on Friday before his bar mitzvah, the teacher played a tape of Gabriel saying the Sh'ma in English," said Rivkind. She remembers thinking that regardless of what Gabriel did during the service, the next day would be his bar mitzvah, his coming of age in Judaism. "It goes back to what Buber said. If that's Gabriel's potential, he reached it."

As things turned out, Gabriel refused to recite the Sh'ma at his bar mitzvah.

It's hard to know how much Gabriel understood about the actual ceremony. However, Rivkind and Shatz agree that he sensed it was about him and that it was special.

For Shatz the ceremony was especially significant. He was never a bar mitzvah and learned Hebrew and trope for the occasion.

"I was raised in a secular family but my father was raised in a religious family," he said. "I felt [Judaism] was a piece of him that never got expressed. At the end of his life he regretted that he never passed on any religion to us."

Gabriel was named for Shatz's father. "It was [Gabriel's] bar mitzvah and in some ways it was my bar mitzvah," said Shatz. "Gabriel, because of his condition, brings me to a connection with my father. Here the circle closes."