by Rabbi Marci Bellows

I looked down at the podium in front of me. I had led services from this surface myriad times, but it had never before looked like this. Instead of three siddurim (mine, the Bat Mitzvah celebrant’s, and the cantor’s), there were two siddurim and a large document. On the document were little dots that were illegible to me, but to the girl to my right, these raised circles contained the holiest words known to Jews. Though I couldn’t understand, her fingers moved over the Braille words and she was able to read, “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad.” It was my first Bat Mitzvah led entirely by the student in Braille.

Over a year ago, we began to plan this very special day. Brooke and her family met with Rabbi Deanna Pasternak (our Educational Director) and me to think through her Bat Mitzvah. Brooke has been blind for many years, though she was not blind at birth. We quickly reached out to the Jewish Braille Institute, an important organization that provides Braille resources for many Jewish texts.

Though Brooke can no longer see, she is gifted with many other talents, including an angelic singing voice. We knew that music would be a special way for her to personalize her Bat Mitzvah celebration. With the help of Emily Altman, one of our tutors, and Cantor Steven Sher, we looked for unique opportunities for her to add to the musical portions of the service. In addition to leading the majority of the prayers, she learned a beautiful Debbie Friedman melody for the “Yotzer Or” prayer, and she delivered it a capella during the worship service.

As I have gotten to know Brooke over the past few years, I have been delighted by her – she is full of curiosity, humor, and a general joie de vive. Whenever she and her family attend Shabbat services, she always asks what musical instruments we will be playing during the liturgy. “Organ and guitar,” are my most common answers. Inevitably, she’ll ask for some tambourine or piano to be added to the mix. I giggle at this frequent interchange, but I also understand that there is something deeper going on – for Brooke, the sounds of the service are one of the most important ways that she connects to the prayers.

Read the rest of this piece in the New York Jewish Week.