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Small Miracles Mark Judaism’s Rite of Passage for Special Few

Times Staff Writer

In 1977, when her two sons were 5 and 2, Lora Jerugim gave birth to the daughter, Elisa, she always wanted.

“I had fantasies about who she would be and what we would share. Of course, she would be completely articulate by the age of 2, and someday I would teach her to play the piano,” Jerugim said. “And when she grew older we would recommend books to each other to read. I had images of our whole family sitting at a table assembling a thousand-piece puzzle.”

The future was set.

But after Elisa was born, facts began to replace fantasy. At 6 months, Elisa couldn’t roll over. At one year, she couldn’t sit up. Her mother took almost daily trips to social service agencies, physical and occupational therapists, physicians and educators--anyone who might be able to figure out what was wrong with Elisa.

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Jerugim said doctors could “offer no precise diagnosis,” only that Elisa was “developmentally delayed.”

The future would have to change.

“I learned to let go of the high expectations,” said Jerugim, 43, of Los Angeles. “I decided to let her be who she was going to be.”

But next year, Jerugim will be able to watch her daughter fulfill one expectation that, only a few years ago, seemed impossible. She can watch Elisa go through one of the most important rituals in Jewish family life.

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Elisa, 11, is learning about Noah’s Ark, Adam and Eve, and the Ten Commandments in Hebrew School at Valley Beth Shalom Synagogue in Encino. On July 7, 1990, she will celebrate her bat mitzvah, the traditional rite of passage when a Jew, at 13, becomes an adult in the eyes of the community. Boys have bar mitzvahs.

“Both of her brothers had bar mitzvahs, and she’s entitled to her day, too,” Jerugim said. “Why not?”

Elisa is enrolled in the synagogue’s “Shaare Tikva"--The Gates of Hope--program. Established in 1983, the class, which meets from 9 to 11 a.m. Sundays, teaches a dozen disabled youngsters from Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley the laws and customs of Judaism.

Students study the rites connected with Jewish holidays and the ethical and moral guidelines written in the Talmud and Torah.

And, as the students approach age 13, after about three to five years of classes, they learn the necessary skills--reading aloud from the Old Testament, reciting traditional blessings--to hold a bar or bat mitzvah in front of hundreds of worshipers.

“The bar mitzvah is of ultimate importance in Judaism,” said Neal Schnall, principal of Valley Beth Shalom Hebrew School. “Because it’s so public, it cements a Jew’s identity in his own mind and in the mind of the community. The Jew now has the right and responsibility to observe the laws.”

For parents, the ceremony affirms a family’s status in the congregation. But for the families in Shaare Tikva, it means something more.

When Danny LeCover, 13, of Los Angeles talks, his speech is slurred; his body movements are awkward. But he celebrated his bar mitzvah in October at University Synagogue in Brentwood after taking classes at the Encino temple.

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“How could we expect Danny to have a bar mitzvah?” asked his mother, Deborah LeCover, 43. “My God, he can’t even hold a pencil.”

But Danny read several passages from the Old Testament, and he delivered a speech to the congregation.

“Danny can share the rich traditions with us,” Deborah LeCover said. “We can be a family. With Danny, there’s no running to play with Billy or going to the mall. There is no soccer or Valentine Day dances. There’s not a lot. So you search continually for something. Anything.”

Funded by Parents

Funded by the parents ($370 per child) and the Jewish Federation in Los Angeles, Shaare Tikva is one of several programs in Southern California that serve about 500 Jewish students with learning disabilities.

In addition to Valley Beth Shalom, synagogues that offer classes for students with learning disabilities include Congregation Ner Tamid in Rancho Palos Verdes, Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, Temple Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks and Temple Isaiah in Rancho Park. Shaare Tikva is run only at the Encino synagogue.

“Our community has room for everyone,” said Elaine Albert, coordinator for the Commission on Jews with Disabilities in Los Angeles, which helped set up the programs. “All Jews should have the opportunity to participate in Jewish life.”

Teachers and parents say it is unclear to what degree the youngsters retain their new Jewish knowledge and how it affects them emotionally.

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“What matters more is that Elisa is connecting with Judaism at some level,” Lora Jerugim said. “She is a complete human being like the rest of us, and if we can provide her with the whole range of human experiences, that’s what we shoot for.”

Mike Sirota, Shaare Tikva’s music teacher, believes that the students sense the program’s significance and value Judaism in their lives.

“I think they feel a spiritual peace and that it feels right for them to be here,” said Sirota, 39, of Santa Monica. “They have feelings. They just can’t express them the same way. You can’t keep these kids away.”

Four years ago at a Hanukkah party, Sirota said, he was singing with the students when a 6-year-old girl approached him. She just stood and stared--and listened. Their eyes met, only inches apart. When the song ended, she clapped and walked back to her seat, never uttering a word.

“But she had communicated with me,” Sirota said, “and that’s what it’s all about. This class allows them to communicate.”

Each student finds something special in the class. Elisa likes to draw. Danny plays games. Another student, Noah Frank, 6, of Canoga Park, loves to read the Jewish calendar. Parents say the youngsters look forward to Sundays and often recite the new songs in the car on the way home and in the house during the week.

As Schnall explains, Shaare Tikva tries to give students a feeling of what being Jewish is all about.

“There’s a proverb that says, ‘Educate each child according to his ability,’ and that’s what we try to do here,” Schnall said.

Repetition Strategy

The main strategy of Shaare Tikva is repetition. Each year, the students sing the same songs, draw the same pictures and participate in the same rituals.

“That’s the reinforcement these kids need,” Sirota said. “These kids aren’t that good at retaining information. Occasionally, we’ll bring in a new thought.”

The lessons are reinforced at home. The Jerugims light the candles on Friday nights, a ritual that formally welcomes the holiest day in Judaism, the Sabbath. The LeCovers go over the songs with Danny.

“We aren’t that religious,” Deborah LeCover said, “but Danny has made our lives more spiritual. It has made us more aware and sensitive to others.”

Stephen LeCover, deeply moved by Danny’s bar mitzvah studying, joined him at the podium in October. The elder LeCover, 47, had never had his own ceremony, but he read portions from the Old Testament and addressed the worshipers.

“We have been allowed to dream of unlimited possibilities and opportunities for Daniel,” he told the congregation.

The families in Shaare Tikva say they had some doubts about putting their children in Hebrew school.

“Because there is such a high emphasis in the Jewish community on education and achievement, parents might feel uncomfortable because their child won’t achieve in ways others will,” Albert said. “There is a lot of pressure for academic excellence in the Jewish community.”

But the families overcame the doubts and became friends. Every Sunday, while their children learn about the past, the parents meet for coffee; they share stories and strategies and hope.

They build strong friendships with the teachers, too.

“They do such a great job,” said Deborah LeCover. “They know how frustrating and yet fulfilling it is to work with these kids.”

Maeva Carter, 30, of Reseda, who has taught in Shaare Tikva for six years, said she never knows what to expect.

“Every week, every minute is a roller coaster,” Carter said. “One technique won’t be working and the child won’t respond and then, all of a sudden, he will remember something from a week earlier.”

The teachers strive for small miracles, like the mention of a familiar phrase, or even a smile. When a student surprises them by remembering something taught weeks earlier, the instructors rejoice. It is then that they realize the odds they must overcome.

“They’ve done something wonderful,” Carter said, “and then you compare it to a 5-year-old, and it’s nothing. A giant step for them is like a little one for younger kids.”

But there are giant steps. Like the time Jonathan Garden opened up. Two years ago, when he joined Shaare Tikva, Jonathan would not talk in class. He spoke at home, but in new, potentially uncomfortable situations, like Hebrew school, he kept quiet. He sat and stared for months, seemingly oblivious to his surroundings. One day, when the teachers asked the students what gifts they received for Hanukkah, there was a whisper from the back of the room.

It was Jonathan.

“He said ‘white bike,’ ” Carter recalled. “We had to have him repeat it five times. We didn’t know whether he could speak. Since then, he has started conversations.”

Once students are ready to prepare for the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony, Schnall makes it clear that the synagogue won’t treat them any differently than teen-agers without learning disabilities.

“We meet with them and go over the whole day, like we do with everyone else,” Schnall said. “The ceremony is not some kind of freak show. We don’t do shows.”

During October’s bar mitzvah, the LeCovers were worried about anything that might demean Danny and point out his disability. Because of his physical limitations, Danny would not be able to carry a complete Torah. So instead of having him carry a scaled-down Torah without all of the Old Testament, they found a lighter one that still had the entire Scripture.

The LeCovers say the ceremony was more than an attempt to give Danny a valuable Jewish experience.

“It was a way we could connect with the Jewish community,” Deborah LeCover said. “It’s a validation of everything we’ve gone through.”

She showed pictures of Danny and her dancing at the Saturday night reception after the bar mitzvah. Danny was dressed in a tuxedo.

“You asked if it was all worth it, going through the whole program. It’s worth it,” she said. “Look at him. Look how happy he is.”

This Saturday, the Greenspans of Northridge will experience the same pride. Their son, David, 13, will celebrate his bar mitzvah at Valley Beth Shalom.

David was born without an ear, sees from only one eye and speaks slowly. But his parents couldn’t be more excited about Saturday’s special event.

“He’s doing so much,” said Deanna Greenspan, 34, his mother. “I never thought he could do it.”

At first the Greenspans set low expectations. They would be satisfied if David could understand some of the Jewish traditions and make some new friends.

“We figured he had a hard enough time with English, let alone Hebrew,” his mother said.

But last summer, David started learning the Old Testament portions he will read to the congregation. Each Sunday after class, he meets with a tutor to go over the readings and prepare his personal address. A few weeks ago, he was almost finished with the speech. As his mother watched, David practiced.

The voice was raspy, the sentences sometimes hard to comprehend. The word “eligible” had to be omitted because David couldn’t properly pronounce it. But he was smiling. So was his mother.

“David will join with all the people around the world who have had their bar mitzvahs,” Deanna Greenspan said. “Who would have believed it?”


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