Sandy Feldman loves special occasions, and March 19 was one of the biggest of her life. She had her bat mitzva service and celebration that day at Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim, the Conservative shul in Cranford, and it was her birthday — her 64th.
It couldn’t have taken place at the usual age. Feldman lost her parents when she was three, and was brought up in Newark by her grandparents, who were Orthodox. She is also learning disabled. But, she said, she had wanted to become bat mitzva for a long time, as a way to make a clear statement about being Jewish.
One day, about 10 years ago, Feldman walked two-and-a-half miles from the group home she shares with two roommates in Roselle to the Cranford temple. She became a regular there, attending Shabbat and High Holy Day services, and events like the annual picnic. In recent times, she has been driven to the temple by one of her counselors.
She told temple board member Laura Cohen about that bat mitzva dream, and in January, it was decided that it was time to make that dream come true. Cohen told NJ Jewish News, “I just thought, why wouldn’t we do something that Sandy is able to do?”
Cohen had no experience in special education, but she has had decades of teaching, and she readily took on the challenge. She grew up with parents who were both Jewish educators and worked toward a degree in Jewish studies before switching direction and earning an MBA.
She discussed the idea with the congregation’s leader, Rabbi Ben Goldstein, who gave her the go-ahead to prepare Feldman for whatever she could take on. Cohen suggested her student do blessings for the aliya, give a speech, and recite the Motzi over the hallah at the kiddush luncheon after services. The two women worked together for about seven weeks, with English texts and transliterations of the Hebrew blessings.
“Sandy can read, but some of the transliterated words were too unfamiliar for her,” Cohen said. “I found that if I changed the spelling to look like a more familiar word, she grasped it immediately.”
Cohen wrote out the speech, basing it entirely on Feldman’s own words. “I told her she could change anything she wanted, but she liked it,” said Cohen. “She said it was what she wanted to say.”
‘Part of the community’
On the big day, Cohen reported, Feldman came to shul accompanied by four of her friends and her counselor. When it came time for her to go up on the bima, Cohen stayed close at her side, providing just a few quiet prompts.
Feldman told the congregants about her grandparents and the love of Judaism that they gave her. She said, “My happiest Jewish memories are Shabbat and candle-lighting, seders on Passover, and Hanukka. Grandma made her own chopped liver. Her cooking was great.”
She continued, according to a copy of the speech Cohen gave NJJN, “I want to become bat mitzva because I never had one. This is important to me because I want to say that I am Jewish. I joined the synagogue because you should be part of the community.”
Cohen said she was tremendously impressed by Feldman’s commitment to doing good. As she said in her speech, on Thursdays, she goes to Cranford to the senior program at Catholic Community Services. “I help out with serving the lunch to the seniors who need help,” Feldman said.
Cohen told Feldman how proud she had made her friends in the congregation. “We all learned something about you today, and we learned a lesson from you too,” she said. “We all have now seen that your determination enabled you to learn and master new ways to express your Jewish commitment and overcome challenges.”
Feldman’s uncle Danny Millman, whom she grew up with almost as siblings, and his wife Ruth came from their home in Middletown for the event. They sponsored the kiddush lunch that followed the service and provided a big birthday cake.
Ruth said, “We were very happy that Sandy was able to do this. She always enjoys celebrations, and this one was lovely. I think it’ll be a day that she always remembers as a very happy occasion.”
Congregation president Eliot Ballen said, “I didn’t know what to expect from Sandy. When she got to the bima, the look of accomplishment and joy on her face was unbelievable. As a temple president I have been through many b’nei mitzva, but this one really got to me. I looked at Rabbi Goldstein, and we were both a little teary-eyed. To me this is what a temple is all about.”
Feldman herself said she was very pleased. She especially liked all the gifts from the congregation and from several of the members who also got her presents. Chatting the following Saturday, she told Cohen the event was everything she hoped for.