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Small Miracles Mark Judaism's Rite of Passage for Special Few

March 09, 1989|MICHAEL ARKUSH | Times Staff Writer

In 1977, when her two sons were 5 and 2, Lora Jerugim gave birth to the daughter, Elisa, she always wanted.

"I had fantasies about who she would be and what we would share. Of course, she would be completely articulate by the age of 2, and someday I would teach her to play the piano," Jerugim said. "And when she grew older we would recommend books to each other to read. I had images of our whole family sitting at a table assembling a thousand-piece puzzle."

The future was set.

But after Elisa was born, facts began to replace fantasy. At 6 months, Elisa couldn't roll over. At one year, she couldn't sit up. Her mother took almost daily trips to social service agencies, physical and occupational therapists, physicians and educators--anyone who might be able to figure out what was wrong with Elisa.

Jerugim said doctors could "offer no precise diagnosis," only that Elisa was "developmentally delayed."

The future would have to change.

"I learned to let go of the high expectations," said Jerugim, 43, of Los Angeles. "I decided to let her be who she was going to be."

But next year, Jerugim will be able to watch her daughter fulfill one expectation that, only a few years ago, seemed impossible. She can watch Elisa go through one of the most important rituals in Jewish family life.

Elisa, 11, is learning about Noah's Ark, Adam and Eve, and the Ten Commandments in Hebrew School at Valley Beth Shalom Synagogue in Encino. On July 7, 1990, she will celebrate her bat mitzvah, the traditional rite of passage when a Jew, at 13, becomes an adult in the eyes of the community. Boys have bar mitzvahs.

"Both of her brothers had bar mitzvahs, and she's entitled to her day, too," Jerugim said. "Why not?"

Elisa is enrolled in the synagogue's "Shaare Tikva"--The Gates of Hope--program. Established in 1983, the class, which meets from 9 to 11 a.m. Sundays, teaches a dozen disabled youngsters from Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley the laws and customs of Judaism.

Students study the rites connected with Jewish holidays and the ethical and moral guidelines written in the Talmud and Torah.

And, as the students approach age 13, after about three to five years of classes, they learn the necessary skills--reading aloud from the Old Testament, reciting traditional blessings--to hold a bar or bat mitzvah in front of hundreds of worshipers.

"The bar mitzvah is of ultimate importance in Judaism," said Neal Schnall, principal of Valley Beth Shalom Hebrew School. "Because it's so public, it cements a Jew's identity in his own mind and in the mind of the community. The Jew now has the right and responsibility to observe the laws."

For parents, the ceremony affirms a family's status in the congregation. But for the families in Shaare Tikva, it means something more.

When Danny LeCover, 13, of Los Angeles talks, his speech is slurred; his body movements are awkward. But he celebrated his bar mitzvah in October at University Synagogue in Brentwood after taking classes at the Encino temple.

"How could we expect Danny to have a bar mitzvah?" asked his mother, Deborah LeCover, 43. "My God, he can't even hold a pencil."

But Danny read several passages from the Old Testament, and he delivered a speech to the congregation.

"Danny can share the rich traditions with us," Deborah LeCover said. "We can be a family. With Danny, there's no running to play with Billy or going to the mall. There is no soccer or Valentine Day dances. There's not a lot. So you search continually for something. Anything."

Funded by Parents

Funded by the parents ($370 per child) and the Jewish Federation in Los Angeles, Shaare Tikva is one of several programs in Southern California that serve about 500 Jewish students with learning disabilities.

In addition to Valley Beth Shalom, synagogues that offer classes for students with learning disabilities include Congregation Ner Tamid in Rancho Palos Verdes, Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, Temple Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks and Temple Isaiah in Rancho Park. Shaare Tikva is run only at the Encino synagogue.

"Our community has room for everyone," said Elaine Albert, coordinator for the Commission on Jews with Disabilities in Los Angeles, which helped set up the programs. "All Jews should have the opportunity to participate in Jewish life."

Teachers and parents say it is unclear to what degree the youngsters retain their new Jewish knowledge and how it affects them emotionally.

"What matters more is that Elisa is connecting with Judaism at some level," Lora Jerugim said. "She is a complete human being like the rest of us, and if we can provide her with the whole range of human experiences, that's what we shoot for."

Mike Sirota, Shaare Tikva's music teacher, believes that the students sense the program's significance and value Judaism in their lives.

"I think they feel a spiritual peace and that it feels right for them to be here," said Sirota, 39, of Santa Monica. "They have feelings. They just can't express them the same way. You can't keep these kids away."

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