A Breakthrough Bat Mitzvah


Jamie Hertz jumps off the school bus one recent afternoon, runs into her house, whisks by Danny, her 11-year-old brother, and heads to the refrigerator. "Where’s the soda?" she asks her mother. A can of soda and a bag of candy in hand, Jamie runs upstairs. She is agitated. Her shoulder-length brown swings in the air as she shakes her head.

A bribe of more sweets entices Jamie downstairs. A hug calms her. Arms around her mother, Jamie sits on a couch in the living room of their Rye Brook home.

"Do you want to show how well you read your prayers?" Eliane Hertz, Jamie’s mother, asks.

Jamie violently shakes her head: no.

Hertz puts a bound book of laminated pages, a personalized siddur, in Jamie’s hands, opening to a Hebrew song. "You can do it beautifully, Jamie. Can you show us how?"

Jamie looks down. She stops shaking. Gently, she starts singing, like she did on the bima of her synagogue, for the first time, one a Saturday evening this winter.

By the time Jamie, the first child of Marc and Elaine Hertz, was 3, something was different about her. She was hyperactive, she would obsessively repeat actions.

At 4 she was diagnosed as autistic.

For Jamie’s parents, this would mean years of arranging special education classes in Westchester school systems, of accommodating their lives to her delayed language development and periodic outbursts, of lowering their expectations for her.

For Jamie, Elaine thought, this would mean no bat mitzvah.

"I could not imagine that Jamie would be able to do that," Hertz says. "I could not imagine Jamie standing still long enough."

Then came cousins’ bar and bat mitzvahs. Jamie was fascinated. She "essentially memorized" the videotapes of her relatives’ bar-bat mitzvahs, singing the melodies by heart. "Jamie," her parents finally asked, "would you like to have a bat mitzvah?"

She did.

So late one recent Shabbat, shortly after her 13th birthday, Jamie Blair (Yakova Bina when she received an aliyah at Temple Sholom in Greenwich, Conn.) became a daughter of the commandments. For an hour, in front of 150 handpicked guests, she led an adapted Mincha-Havdalah service, chanted her Torah portion, and read a brief speech about the parsha of the week.

"Everything was perfect," Hertz says. Jamie was poised; she did not forget a word; she mingled unselfconsciouslessly at the party afterwards. "She did it as if there was nothing different about Jamie that night."

It was, says Hertz says, "a miracle."

It was, says Rabbi Martin Schloss, an expert on special education at the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York, part of a trend. There are "a growing number" of b’nai mitzvahs of children with autism, a complex neurological disability of the brain (it is not mental retardation) that affects communication and social interaction skills.

"Twenty years ago it was less likely," Rabbi Schloss says. "Our community was less primed." Jewish children with such developmental problems were frequently placed in non-Jewish institutions.

Today several organizations, including Shema Kolainu, a school in Brooklyn for autistic Jewish children, and BJE, a resource for Jewish schools and teachers, are among several Jewish institutions serving children with special needs. Rabbi Schloss says he sees a greater "receptivity" in the Jewish community.

"I think it’s a great thing," he says, adding that the details of a coming-of-age ceremony, or of other Jewish activities, "should be … predicated … on whatever the child can do."

The Hertzes left that decision up to Jamie, who is considered high-functioning autistic. She lives at home, makes friends at school, and joins her mother in making the blessings over the Shabbat candles each Friday evening.

"People were thinking" (and asking Jamie’s parents) "how could you expect so much of the child?" Hertz says.

Did Jamie understand the spiritual significance of a bat mitzvah?"She knew it was temple and tradition," Hertz says.

After Jamie first agreed to a bat mitzvah two years ago, "We would keep asking her, ‘Do you really want to have a bat mitzvah?’ " Hertz says.

Jamie kept saying yes.

She and her parents went to Temple Sholom, across the nearby state border, where the family has belonged for several years. They were directed to Aviva Luden, a private tutor in Stamford.

"When I first met her, we connected," says Luden, a 1986 graduate of Stern College for Women who has worked with children with a variety of learning disabilities. One afternoon a week, Hertz drove her daughter to Stamford, staying at Jamie’s side during lessons.

Luden began with the aleph-bet, working up to words, then individual prayers. "We sang together," Luden says. "We looked each other in the eye and her body moved" to the rhythm. "When she sang she was calm; she sat in her chair and didn’t fidget."

Luden prepared a musical tape of the bat mitzvah service to which Jamie listened every day.

"She loves music," Hertz says.Music therapy is often effective with autistic children, especially in strengthening language skills.

Eventually Jamie learned (essentially she memorized) the entire service.

"Because I never worked with an autistic child before," says Luden, who made the personalized, laminated siddur for Jamie, "I never thought she couldn’t do it. She was [simply] a girl who came to me who needed more patience than other children did."

A few months before the bat mitzvah, Cantor Kenneth Cohen of Temple Sholom entered the picture, working with Jamie in the synagogue sanctuary, rehearsing the mechanics of the entire ceremony, "giving her confidence" to perform in public. "I just see her," the cantor says, "as a young woman who wanted to find a meaningful way into our faith."

Invitations with a purple motif, Jamie’s favorite color, were mailed out. Jamie picked out her own outfit, a long, gray satiny dress with matching jacket. The ceremony was scheduled for after sunset so Sabbath-observant Luden could attend.

"We were really petrified. We were really scared," Hertz says. "What if Jamie froze? What if she panicked? Well-meaning friends told the parents about children with autism who got nervous at the last moment and would not come to their own bar or bat mitzvah.

"That was not helpful," says Dr. Marc Hertz, a radiologist.

Luden sat in the front row. "Jamie was a star," she says. "She loved the attention. You would not have known" that Jamie has autism.

At one point Cantor Cohen turned away from Jamie, toward Rabbi Mitchell Hurvitz, who was sitting on the bima. She grabbed the cantor by the sleeve and barked, "Come back here."

Any sudden change in routine can be upsetting to someone with autism.

"Everyone was laughing," Hertz says. And, "there were a lot of tears."

"Jamie," she says, "was beaming."

Both parents gave speeches at the ceremony. Hertz described how her daughter had reached that day, and how Jamie was motivated by the promise of Skittles, her favorite candy.

The bat mitzvah was over. "As soon as she was finished, she said ‘Where are my Skittles?’" Hertz says.

For Dr. Hertz, Jamie’s poise on the bima was no surprise. "This was something she wanted desperately. She prepared for it vigorously."

We expect much more of her: long term," he says. "She has tremendous untapped capabilities."

The family agreed to donate part of the money Jamie received as bat mitzvah gifts to the Cure Autism Now Foundation in Los Angeles.

In the short-term, Jamie’s Jewish education will continue this summer, and her parents will enroll her in music lessons.

And Luden, who has a busy tutoring schedule, is considering whether she would teach another child with autism.

"If I could find another Jamie," she says, "I would do it."

Jamie finishes singing; she alternately yells, then falls silent. She has a distant smile, without the vacant look common among people with developmental problems. She jumps around the living room, then, coaxed by her mother, sits down again.

"Did you like your bar mitzvah," Hertz asks.

"Yes, yes," Jamie says, whispering in her mother’s ear.

Was she nervous?

"Yes, yes."

Of what?

"The sounds."

Jamie, like many autistic children, fears crowds of people and the din of ambient noises.

Jamie is tired of answering questions. Hertz tries one more one.

"Do you want to go to your brother’s bar mitzvah?": Danny’s, in two years.

Jamie shakes her head. "Yes, yes."