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A Bat Mitzvah to Remember

May 9, 2009 | by

With the room filled with joyous music and whirling girls, that's when I noticed her. Shuli, a girl with Downs' Syndrome, was sitting off to the side, not dancing.

It has become popular these days to "mainstream" children with special needs, to put them in regular classes, often along with an aide to assist them. This is especially common with Downs' Syndrome children. I have no expertise in this area whatsoever, so I can only tell you what I saw at my daughter Sara's Bat Mitzvah party.

As the girls arrived, they all lined up to sign Sara's special book of blessings -- each girl writing their good wishes for her future. I wanted my daughter to write a blessing for each of the girls as well, but with 70 girls in the combined classes, it overwhelmed us. Then my oldest daughter (with a big future in event planning!) led everyone in a very cute game, awarding points with prizes to be raffled off at the end of the evening. There's no laughter quite like the shrieking of adolescent girls!

Next on the agenda was food. (Nu?) It was delicious and no one noticed the harassed parents behind the scenes schlepping hot lasagnas back and forth from their home to the synagogue because the synagogue ovens didn't seem to be working! (Trying hard not to sweat the small stuff…)

At 9:00 PM, a dance teacher arrived and the room was filled with joyous music and whirling girls.

That's when I noticed it. Shuli, the girl with Downs' Syndrome, was sitting off to the side, not dancing. I expected her to be sad, alone, ignored. But it never happened, not for the whole hour that the dancing occurred.

There was always a group of girls, unsolicited, keeping her company, talking to her, engaging her. If she left the room, someone accompanied her. Continually, different girls gave up their good time on the dance floor (and it was a good time!) to sit with Shuli. And they did it all night, without being asked. It just came naturally. She is their classmate and friend, and they have learned to care for her.

Sara is a cancer survivor so the event had a special aura of poignancy and gratitude.

As I said, I'm no expert on the arguments for and against mainstreaming. I can't speak about how it has affected Shuli. But watching Sara's classmates, I know that they had grown and become better for it and I was proud of them.

It was a very moving Bat Mitzvah. Sara is a cancer survivor so the event had a special aura of poignancy and gratitude. All our eyes glistened when she thanked us for all we had done for her and spoke of the Almighty's love for His people and of our need to constantly grow and change.

We asked each girl to bring in an item of gently used clothing for children in Israel and were overwhelmed and gratified by the generosity (and the numerous bags of clothing I now have to sort!).

The innocent joy of the girls' dancing, their pleasure in each other, their sharing in Sara's joy -- it was all beautiful.

But the most lasting image is that of a constant group of bright-eyed, energetic girls sitting out the dancing and crowded around their special classmate.


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