A deaf Indonesian 12-year-old is not your typical bat mitzvah


NEW YORK (JTA) — This wasn’t your typical bat mitzvah.

It took place in Jakarta, Indonesia, a majority Muslim country with an Jewish community that is thought to number in the double digits.

The bat mitzvah, Mei Lin Kallman, spent part of her Hebrew school education commuting each Sunday to another country, Singapore, where she studied at the local Chabad center.

And to fulfill her bat mitzvah responsibilities on Saturday, Mei had to overcome a physical disability: She was born practically deaf and relies on the aid of a cochlear implant to hear.

“My daughter is my hero,” James Kallman, Mei’s father, told JTA in a telephone interview. “She is the catalyst for big things to happen.”

Still, in many ways, the bat mitzvah held last Shabbat resembled those held every Saturday around the world. Yarmulkes and prayer shawls embroidered with “Ruth’s bat-mitzvah” (Ruth is Mei’s Hebrew name) were handed out to the 150 or so guests. During the prayer service, Mei read from the Torah and gave a speech. And Mei’s friends in attendance — about 10 giggling, happy 12-year-old girls — joined their friend during the Havdalah service to sing and dance near the candlelight.

By all accounts, it wasn’t easy to reach this point.

The driving force behind the bat mitzvah was Mei’s mother, Dewi Suryati Liauw, a Chinese businesswoman who converted to Judaism 13 years ago. Dewi has insisted over the years that the family observe Friday night, and she decided when Mei was 10 that the girl should receive a strong religious foundation.

For eight months Mei was sent to Hebrew school in Singapore every Sunday until the family was able to arrange for a live-in tutor. Israeli tutor Michal Krauss helped Mei prepare for the Torah reading.

Rabbi Andrew Sacks, a Conservative rabbi and director of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, came to Indonesia to help lead the bat mitzvah service.

“I’ve personally traveled quite a bit to Asia, but seeing a gathering of people from every faith and tradition made me just really in awe to be there,” Sacks told JTA. “There is no conceivable way that anyone who didn’t know would have a clue she was deaf. Her reading, poise, d’var Torah — everything was just excellent.”

Mei has worked hard to be part of the hearing community ever since her parents realized that she had a severe hearing impairment when she was an infant. Several years ago they established the Mei Lin Foundation to help deaf children lead full and productive lives. As part of their work, Mei and her parents visit schools and help teach hearing-impaired young people to navigate the hearing world.

“Mei is very fortunate she has overcome her disability,” said Kallman, who was born in America. “But cochlear implants are an expensive proposition that most cannot afford.”

The bat mitzvah brought Indonesia’s few Jews out of the woodwork, Kallman said, and Sacks said many of the guests approached him to ask questions about Judaism.

So did many members of the Muslim wait staff, who served a mix of vegetarian food, Middle Eastern cuisine, and bagels, lox and cream cheese.

“This is just another great example of the religious tolerance in this country,” Kallman said. “I know it since I’ve lived here for 20 years, but it was wonderful to see it reinforced in this very real way.”

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