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Mom puts the ‘mitzva’ in her own bat mitzva
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Mom puts the ‘mitzva’ in her own bat mitzva

Study and good deeds combine in a focus on special-needs kids

As her bat mitzva project, Mari Schindele, left, is raising funds for research on congenital muscular dystrophy, which her daughter Ruthie has.
As her bat mitzva project, Mari Schindele, left, is raising funds for research on congenital muscular dystrophy, which her daughter Ruthie has.

Mari Schindele converted to Judaism a year after she married Matt Wiener. As part of that change, she wanted to have a bat mitzva ceremony, but as a teacher and a mother of two children, she didn’t get around to it.

Last year, the 44-year-old Westfield resident realized that their son, Noah, now in fifth grade, was approaching bar mitzva age. It pushed her into action — not only to study toward the ceremony for herself, but to take on the kind of “mitzva project” that has become a rite of passage in itself.

“I just decided it was time,” she told NJ Jewish News last week. Her ceremony will be this Saturday, Jan. 29, at Temple Sholom, the Reform congregation in Fanwood/Scotch Plains. When Noah starts studying the Torah portion for his bar mitzva, she said, “I’ll be able to tell him, ‘You can do it. I did.’”

Schindele said she also hopes to set an example for Noah by committing to two mitzva projects.

The first is to research and assemble information on resources available to parents of children with special needs, to be posted on the Temple Sholom website. For the second, she will run in the New Jersey half-marathon in Long Branch on May 1 to raise funds to deal with congenital muscular dystrophy.

It will be her second time running in the event. Last year, she raised $3,000 in sponsorships, and this year — with the added impetus of her bat mitzva — she hopes to equal or exceed that. The funds are for Cure CMD, an all-volunteer organization dedicated to research and helping families affected by the disease.

Schindele and her family are among them. Their daughter, Ruthie, a second-grader, was born with the condition. It causes muscle weakness from birth and can result in neurological, physical, or cognitive impairments. Some children never gain the ability to walk; others do, but then lose the ability as they grow older.

Noah is laid back about his mom’s effort, she said, but Ruthie is enthusiastic. “She knows why I’m doing it, and when she sees me go out to run, she gets very excited,” said Schindele.

Serious training

Schindele, who describes herself as a stay-at-home-mom, isn’t new to working for good causes; she volunteers on 15 committees. “I used to be a teacher, and most of my volunteer work is at the kids’ school,” she said.

The response to her project has been warm. “I’ve been overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of friends, family, and even strangers,” she said, and added, “It helps our whole family to know how many people are thinking of us and wishing us well.”

As for having a bat mitzva at this age, Schindele had one advantage: She learned her Hebrew as an adult, in preparation for her conversion. Six months ago, when she began studying with Temple Sholom’s Rabbi Joel Abraham, she found she was still able to decode the Hebrew passages. She said he was very supportive of her interests, recommending reading matter on whatever she wanted to explore. As a former English teacher, she was particularly fascinated by the narrative structure of biblical stories.

Schindele said she will start serious training for the half-marathon after the celebration. “I really loved doing it last year, but it was 95 degrees on race day,” she said. “I wound up running only a little more than half the race and walking the rest of the way. If that happens again, so be it.” She is hoping for better luck this time. “I work out every day,” she said, “but I really need to step things up.”

Those who are interested in Cure CMD, or in sponsoring Schindele, can go to curecmd.org/events/njmarathon2011. Scroll down to “Mari” and click the “donate” button.

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