Jeffrey and Claudia Frankel want for their son Sam what all parents want — that he have a valued place in the community. Sam has Down’s Syndrome, with major difficulties learning and communicating, so they weren’t sure how that goal would be realized.
This past weekend, they got their answer, as Sam, who will turn 13 on Feb. 20, celebrated becoming a bar mitzva at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, where they live. Sam’s achievement came in three separate episodes.
Discussing it with NJ Jewish News on Feb. 7, the Frankels said they were probably most nervous the Friday evening before. Sam, seated alongside Cantor Martha Novick, was slated to say the blessing over the candles at the musical Hallelu service. The congregation was celebrating the 60th anniversary of its founding, and there were about 500 people in the sanctuary. There was no knowing how Sam might react to that crowd.
“We were on the edge of our seats,” his mother said.
When his turn came, however, Sam did just fine. Claudia, who is a special education consultant with 30 years of working with other children with disabilities, had tears in her eyes as she recalled the feeling of warm reciprocity from the congregants. When the service ended, everyone applauded. “We were flying high,” she said.
It put them at ease — almost — for the following morning. They gathered in the temple’s Brody Chapel, with around 100 friends and relatives, including Sam’s 11-year-old twin sisters, Sara and Hannah.
Sam’s diction can be difficult to follow, but he recited the prayers and the blessings line by line.
“We really felt that no matter what happened, Sam had been through the process of preparing for his bar mitzva, and that was what mattered most,” Jeff said.
That had been their attitude all along, supported by Rabbi Douglas Sagal. Even after a rather rocky rehearsal two weeks before, they said, he told them, “It’s all good.”
Sam took part in two years of one-on-one tutoring with Debbie Linder, the temple’s special education teacher and his teacher in its Ma’ayan program for children with special needs. He learned to read the Hebrew in transliteration and about the role of the rabbi and the cantor, the Torah, and the blessings — all things that have helped him feel more at ease in temple.
Sagal and Novick were at the Saturday service too, and Linder stayed at Sam’s side throughout.
He had in front of him the book Linder compiled specially for him. In addition to the text —with key words highlighted with little illustrations, it had photographs: Sam, with his grandmother, getting his new tallit and yarmulke, and pictures of the rabbi and cantor, the temple, Torah scrolls and the yad, or pointer. Linder had even helped him make a yad of his own, with a pencil and modeling clay, lest the unfamiliar silver one distract him.
Sam’s portion included the Ten Commandments. In response to Linder’s gentle prompting, he spoke about keeping Shabbat, loving one’s parents, not stealing, and telling the truth. “They were concepts that are meaningful to him, that he definitely understands,” she said.
Sagal said that he has heard discussions on the commandments 40 or 50 times, and never before had the message struck home with such clarity.
Sam also mentioned his mitzva project: making ziti and brownies for families “who don’t have a house.”
Linder was pleased with her student’s performance and with the pride he showed in his achievement. She said she worked with Sam as she has with other children with disabilities: “If you make sure they see or sense success, they accomplish far more than they’ve been able to in other settings,” she said.
Claudia said, “Debbie Linder is really gifted in what she does with these children.” Sam’s teachers at the Phoenix Center in Nutley have seen notable progress as a result of his work with Linder, she added.
On Sunday, Sam chose to attend religious school the day after his ceremony, “becoming part of a very special minority,” as his dad quipped. Apparently, someone mentioned to the other students that Sam had had his bar mitzva the day before.
“A number of kids — not just friends who know him — called out, ‘Hello, Sam’ to him,” Jeff related. When he left, Sam called “good-bye” to them. For the first time in his almost 13 years, Sam was one of them.