Someone Else’s Simcha Bar and Bat Mitzvah for the Deaf Makes All the Right Noises

Huddled together in a small synagogue in central Israel, newly anointed men and women sound a collective yelp of joy in an otherwise silent world.

Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim
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Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim

Location: Young Israel of North Netanya Synagogue

Time: 10:30 A.M.

In the neighborhood: The sloping, windswept residential area making up the northern part of the seaside city of Netanya, situated about 20 minutes north of Tel Aviv. Swanky high-rises vie for a view of the nearby Mediterranean, towering high above the run-down, 1970s-era residential buildings that make up most of the neighborhood.

Venue: Boys and girls huddle together on the ground floor of a modest Ashkenazi Orthodox synagogue, wooden benches arranged in a semi-circle around the wall-to-wall carpeted bimah. Above, the vacant women’s section is awash in morning light, filtering from the east-facing stained-glass windows representing the 12 Tribes of Israel.

Simcha: A Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebration for deaf boys and girls.

Number of guests: 70.

A brief history of time: About a decade ago, Young Israel, or National Council of Young Israel – a U.S.-based Orthodox religious and community organization – was approached concerning the lack of religious education for hearing-impaired children in secular special-needs schools. And the kernel of that idea slowly grew into a national network of volunteers seeking to bring some Torah into a world of silence. “We go over anything, from Bar Mitzvah preparation, candle lighting and printing out material in sign language for the teachers,” says Rabbi Chanoch Yeres, the group’s director of deaf programing.

A high point in the group’s curriculum is its emphasis on prepping boys and girls for their Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremony, culminating in what has become an annual, collective rite of passage at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. This year, however, the ceremony was moved to one of the group’s synagogues over rising security concerns in the capital.

Rites: The synagogue’s benches slowly fill with excited boys and girls, flanked by equally excited parents and teachers, talking to each other in a frenetic mix of speech and sign language. While the ceremony is being set up, a volunteer asks whether there are any children who’d like to come up and introduce themselves, leading to a steady flux of kids signing their names and where they’re from.

Surprisingly, one of the kids is Camal, a smiley, yarmulke-wearing Muslim teen from Acre, who attends the Regavim special-needs school in northern Israel. “Our school caters to the entire north, and we have all types of students,” explains Benny, Camal’s teacher. “We just call the classes ‘roots and tradition.’”

“He studies with his friends every day, so he wanted to be with them today,” adds Ahmed, Camal’s dad.

As the steady parade of students dwindles, Rabbi Chanoch begins proceedings, addressing the crowd while flanked by two sign-language interpreters, their hands working with the precision of synchronized swimmers (“We must understand that each one of us has some deficiency, and it’s that deficiency that makes us special”).

Next up, the synagogue’s founder, Rabbi Morowitz, addresses everybody (“I wish for you to develop those senses God has given you”), followed by the chairman of the Association of the Deaf in Israel.

In the audience is Sima, the proud mother of a visibly emotional Lior. Sima made the trip with her husband from Beit She’an, an 90-minute drive away. She speaks of the transformation she has seen in her son since he began studying sign language a year ago. “It’s like starting from scratch at an advanced age. We don’t have to guess what he wants anymore,” she says.

Taking out her smartphone, Sima – who was raised in a religious family – proudly presents a picture of her son laying tefillin (phylacteries), sent to her by one of Lior’s teachers. “You can’t imagine the commotion this picture caused in our home,” she says, visibly emotional. “We were very excited.”

The kids then receive their gifts, with the Arab students receiving the “Guinness World Records” book instead of a prayer book. And then it’s ceremony time. As Hasidic music is blasted through portable speakers, the boys are off to lay their first set of tefillin. The girls, meanwhile, are taken to one side, where they recite a few psalms and receive a concise explanation concerning the lighting of candles and the role of women in the Jewish home.

Next, the Torah scroll is taken out and the boys, in two large groups, huddle under a large tallit for the reading of the Torah section. Candy, as is customary, is hurled at the boys, with some giggling mothers and teachers scoring a few head shots. The Arab students stand to the side, talking among themselves and checking out their smartphones.

After the boys are done, it’s the girls’ turn to rise to the bimah, where they recite the Shema together and receive their fair share of candy projectiles. The scroll is returned, and the happy bunch – parents, teachers and friends included – descends to the synagogue’s underground food hall for some lunch, before proceeding to a field trip at Tel Aviv’s Beit Hatfutsot – Museum of the Jewish People.

Music: Liturgical.

Food: Muffins, blintzes, potatoes, and chicken schnitzel.

Drink: Soft drinks and water.

Word in the ear: Ahmed, on how attending a special-needs school helped his son: “He didn’t used to know sign language, and now we have a tool to communicate with him. He’s calmer, happier. We feel it every morning: he gets up looking forward to go to school.”

In my spiritual doggy bag: That language, in its many, sometimes manual, forms, is a life-giving force.

Random quote: One of the teachers seeing that the chairman of the Association of the Deaf missed his congratulatory applause: “He didn’t hear!”

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