When Hannah Sturman became a bat mitzvah in February, it stirred many emotions in the Neveh Shalom community. Hannah and her younger brother Mitchell have a rare brain disorder in which the two hemispheres of the brain do not communicate with each other.
Congregation Neveh Shalom for many years hosted a community-wide Sunday school class for children with special needs in collaboration with Jewish Family and Child Service’s TASK disability awareness program. Now most congregations, including Neveh Shalom, integrate these students into their regular classes. B’nai mitzvah celebrations for young people of all abilities have become much more common.
“Fifty years ago my sister attended a Jewish preschool with a neighbor’s child with Down syndrome,” Neveh Shalom Rabbi Daniel Isaak wrote in an email titled Hannah Sturman and the Multi-Tissue Bat Mitzvah. “I remember it because it was so unusual. Children with developmental delays were hidden and largely not spoken of. The families, so overwhelmed with caring, often disappeared from active involvement in the community. Those memories are what made Hannah’s bat mitzvah last week so very memorable.”
During the service, Hannah’s father, Lee Sturman, shared his thoughts about Hannah and the community’s support. “Isabel and I couldn’t manage our lives without your help and support,” he noted.
Though he knows little about Zen Buddhism, he said he feels its precepts describe some of Hannah’s wonderful attributes.
“Hannah, in her 15 years of life, has attained the absolute highest level of Zen,” he said. “In my opinion, she has the purest soul of anyone I have ever met. She is totally liberated from the problems and issues which the rest of us struggle with on a daily basis. She has no ulterior motives, no secondary agendas. She is totally in the moment with whatever she is doing and she is happy and she is joyful.”
Isaak said that on her big day Hannah greeted everyone with great delight and seemed to dance with enthusiasm on her way to the bimah.
“We want all of our children to delight in their community and Jewish identity, whatever that might mean to them,” concluded Isaak. “We will not hide our children. We will do all we can to include and mainstream them, to provide support to families however we can.”