JULY 13, 2017 – There was barely a dry eye in the room. Standing in the sanctuary before a close-knit group of friends and family who had come from all over the country, Heather Wilde carefully lit a single Shabbat candle and said the appropriate Hebrew blessing. Uncovering her eyes, she smiled at those around her and said, “Good Shabbos!”
A student at the Chabad Hebrew School of the Arts in Peabody, it was only natural that the 12-year-old would celebrate her bat mitzvah in a way that was meaningful and personal. The question was just how.
“Heather is a very sweet and positive young woman,” said Raizel Schusterman, who co-directs the Chabad of Peabody Jewish Center with her husband, Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman. “She also has Down syndrome, which means that she has not been able to master Hebrew reading or deliver a long speech, but I tell the parents of our students — all students, regardless of their abilities — that this is a ceremony that has to be appropriate for the young person.”
Working together with Heather’s mother, Brenda Wilde, Raizel set a goal for the young girl: to memorize and recite the Shema, and to light a candle and say the accompanying blessing.
Months of regular study sessions paid off when Heather proudly did just that, late on the afternoon of Friday, June 23.
With his guitar balanced on one robed knee, the rabbi, already dressed in his Shabbat finery, then regaled the crowd with some of Heather’s favorite songs from Hebrew school: “Oseh Shalom” and “Alef-Bet.”
Wilde said the Schustermans’ approach to Heather’s bat mitzvah is reflective of how they run their Chabad center and associated programs. “The Hebrew school primarily serves typical children, but they are so inclusive and welcoming in everything they do,” said Wilde. “Heather loves going and being part of things, especially the songs.”
As Shabbat drew near, the women and girls who were present lit candles that had been artfully arrange to spell out “Shabbat.” Evening services were followed by a full-course dinner.
The next day, at the Kiddush reception that followed morning services, the bat mitzvah girl recited the Hamotzi blessing over the bread.
“Heather was very pleased with herself,” said Wilde. “When she was practicing, I was worried like any mother. But she exceeded our expectations, and I found that as satisfying as when her brother had his bar mitzvah three years ago.”
“It was a beautiful ceremony,” said Raizel Schusterman, who hopes that Heather’s bat mitzvah will encourage other families to think creatively about this milestone for their children with special needs. “Like Heather herself, it was sweet, intimate, loving, and full of joy.”