I looked down at the podium in front of me. I had led services from this surface myriad times, but it had never before looked like this. Instead of three siddurim (mine, the Bat Mitzvah celebrant’s, and the cantor’s), there were two siddurim and a large document. On the document were little dots that were illegible to me, but to the girl to my right, these raised circles contained the holiest words known to Jews. Though I couldn’t understand, her fingers moved over the Braille words and she was able to read, “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad.” It was my first Bat Mitzvah led entirely by the student in Braille.
Over a year ago, we began to plan this very special day. Brooke and her family met with Rabbi Deanna Pasternak (our Educational Director) and me to think through her Bat Mitzvah. Brooke has been blind for many years, though she was not blind at birth. We quickly reached out to the Jewish Braille Institute, an important organization that provides Braille resources for many Jewish texts.
Though Brooke can no longer see, she is gifted with many other talents, including an angelic singing voice. We knew that music would be a special way for her to personalize her Bat Mitzvah celebration. With the help of Emily Altman, one of our tutors, and Cantor Steven Sher, we looked for unique opportunities for her to add to the musical portions of the service. In addition to leading the majority of the prayers, she learned a beautiful Debbie Friedman melody for the “Yotzer Or” prayer, and she delivered it a capella during the worship service.
As I have gotten to know Brooke over the past few years, I have been delighted by her – she is full of curiosity, humor, and a general joie de vive. Whenever she and her family attend Shabbat services, she always asks what musical instruments we will be playing during the liturgy. “Organ and guitar,” are my most common answers. Inevitably, she’ll ask for some tambourine or piano to be added to the mix. I giggle at this frequent interchange, but I also understand that there is something deeper going on – for Brooke, the sounds of the service are one of the most important ways that she connects to the prayers.
During our planning meetings, I was amazed at Brooke’s Hebrew skills. Here is a girl who has never “seen” a Hebrew letter, but she has nevertheless grown to be a capable reader and service leader. She knows the service so well that I told her she could easily substitute for me, if necessary. She learned her prayers, Torah, and Haftarah portions with confidence and competence in a way that few students her age are able.
Brooke even wrote a moving D’var Torah (which she typed out on a Braille typewriter) about her portion, Ki Tavo. She grabbed onto the themes of inclusion and welcoming that our text often encourages. She wrote, “This torah portion serves as a reminder to all people to treat others kindly. It also teaches us that we should be welcoming to other people even if they are different. I always feel happiest when I am included and feel that I am part of a group. This message is a very important one to me. I remember participating in my school talent show. The entire fifth grade was going to be dancing in the finale. I wasn't sure how I was going to do it. Everyone was so welcoming. I held onto my friend's arm and I danced my little heart out. Everyone helped me along by whispering the dance steps into my ear. I had a great time!”
As you might imagine, there was not a dry eye in the house. We all sat in awe, feeling that we were a part of something truly miraculous. Brooke’s voice floated over and around us all, bringing God closer than we had felt possible. Any fears that we might have about our own learning skills or performance abilities were put to rest – if Brooke could do this exceptionally, how dare we question our own proficiency?
I felt a pang of sadness and injustice when we reached the prayer, “Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who opens the eyes of the blind.” I got angry at God – how could God not open Brooke’s eyes? But, then, just as quickly, I got my answer: it was my own eyes that were opened. I had been blind as to how much a seemingly “disabled” person could do in worship, and I could now see the endless possibilities. We all had the blessed opportunity to witness all that Brooke could do, and we would never be the same.