Monday, September 19, 2005

Hearing-impaired teen learns to say the prayers for her bat mitzvah

From the newsroom of the San Antonio Express-News, San Antonio, Texas, Saturday, September 17, 2005 .....

Hearing-impaired teen learns to say the prayers for her bat mitzvah

Jan Kilby
Special to the Express-News

Preparing to say prayers in Hebrew for a bat mitzvah can be challenging for any teenage Jewish girl, but for Genae Weinberger, it required that she first learn to speak.

Genae, 14, has been hearing-impaired since infancy and has used sign language to communicate since she was a child.

With the help of a cochlear implant, Genae has been able to hear some sounds and has tried to replicate them. Her mother said, however, that though she can form some words, she's never fully developed her speech.

Until now.

When the time came for her bat mitzvah, the sometimes shy, sometimes assertive girl decided to take on a daunting task: to fulfill the requirement in the Jewish faith for a person making a bat mitzvah to vocalize the prayers.

Five years ago, Genae set out to accomplish what many considered impossible: speaking her bat mitzvah prayers in Hebrew from the Torah before those in the Congregation Agudas Achim, her synagogue on the city's far North Side.

For Genae and other Jewish girls who reach age 13, making a bat mitzvah signifies their desire to assume the spiritual and moral responsibility of following Jewish laws.

The words "bat mitzvah" mean daughter of the commandment. For Jewish boys, the term is "bar mitzvah," or son of the commandment.

Reaching her goal would allow her several spiritual rewards. After the ceremony, Genae could be counted in the minyan, a group of 10 adult synagogue members required to conduct specific Jewish religious services. She could also go up to the bimah, the raised area in the sanctuary in the synagogue where the service is conducted, to receive an aliya, a call to read Torah passages at services. She would do so wearing a tallit, or prayer shawl, and a kippa, a prayer cap.

Over the years, Genae's parents, Risa and Keith Weinberger, supported their daughter in achieving her goal.

"She's worked very hard. It's more difficult for her," Keith Weinberger said.

Risa Weinberger said she didn't see the ceremony two weeks ago as different from any other one.

"We just had to do some things differently. Everybody's different," she said.

Risa Weinberger said she's happy her daughter has proved something she believes: People with disabilities can fully participate in a spiritual life.

They knew Genae could succeed, so they worked with her daily to prepare her, and they found other professionals to help. Five years ago, they began taking her to weekly 30-minute speech therapy sessions at the Speech and Language Center at Stone Oak.

"She's become more confident in speaking since we started doing this," Risa Weinberger said.

In the past year, Genae has devoted half of each session to learning how to pronounce Hebrew words.

Speech therapist Gayle Flores spoke highly of Genae's progress.

"She was so motivated to learn the prayers," she said.

Risa Weinberger also sought the help of a Jewish interpreter for the deaf, Sharon Ploeger, to assist in the service. She wanted someone to communicate the meaning of Genae's Hebrew prayers into sign language so her daughter's many hearing-impaired friends attending the service could understand them.

A month before her bat mitzvah, Genae, her parents and Rabbi Leonardo Bitran of the Congregation of Agudas Achim rehearsed the service at Ploeger's Austin home.

"She's done beautifully," Ploeger said. "A lot of people would say, 'I'm not going to do this. I have a hard enough time speaking English.' The fact that she really did have the drive to do this — something every Jewish child has the want and need to do — that's wonderful," she said.

Bitran, who also worked with Genae for a year to prepare her for the service, spoke of his admiration for her and her parents.

"The tenacity and commitment of the parents to give Genae the opportunity to be exposed to this change in her journey is remarkable," Bitran said. "It takes a daughter with the willingness to do it and a mom and dad with the commitment to do it."

Bitran also spoke of what he's gained.

"It's been inspiring, a discovery for me, and has sensitized my rabbinate to a different world," he said.

He said he even learned to sign a blessing to Genae during the service.

Keith Weinberger spoke about the impact of his daughter's experience.

"Everybody's learned something from this — the rabbi, the people in the synagogue, Genae and Ashlyn, her younger sister," he said.

As for Genae, her message is simple: "I want others to know," she said through her mother in sign, "that even deaf people can study for a bat mitzvah."

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