There is one tradition at my synagogue that I only recently came to fully appreciate. On the Friday night before a young person is to become a bar or bat mitzvah, the child’s family is called up to light the Shabbat candles, following which he or she leads the congregation in certain prayers. The person is given a Havdalah candle as well, usually presented by a representative of the temple youth group.
The message offered with the gift of the candle is fairly standard: Just as this candle separates the Sabbath from the rest of the week, the sacred from the profane, being called to the Torah for the first time serves a similar function in your own life, marking the transition to becoming an adult member of the Jewish community. It’s a pretty routine spiel, delivered week after week.
So who would have guessed that, one day, it would bring a tear to my eye?
That’s what happened recently, when Morgan Vera Roseman, a girl with numerous special needs (autism and epilepsy), walked up to the bimah. She was radiant, all smiles and black curls, sheathed in a beautiful black dress.
I had seen Morgan around the synagogue before, interacting with friends, singing in the choir, walking around the campus. I don’t think I’d ever spoken with her much more than to say hello, and I definitely had never seen her glowing like this.
As Morgan received her Havdalah candle, she responded to the youth group representative with energy and joy. “I’m sure you’re looking forward to the big day tomorrow,” the older teenager told her. “YES!” came the emphatic, grinning response, as Morgan nearly jumped out of her shoes. Her happiness was palpable, a stark contrast to the usual tempered teens.
Later, her Hebrew was perfect as she led the congregation in prayer. And the cantor (who also happens to be my wife) talked about the significance of that week’s Torah portion, in which the Israelites celebrate crossing the Red Sea. It was no accident, my wife said, that this parasha was about overcoming adversity, which Morgan had worked so hard to accomplish with such aplomb.
The scene was inspiring and moving and lots of other things that made my heart quiver. It’s hard to pinpoint the reason I responded so strongly. Whether it was the sight of a young person overcoming a challenge, relishing a moment that many of us take for granted, or simply the way she embraced her Judaism, I cannot say.
But what I do know is that during that service, I connected with this young girl — now officially a young woman. And when she received that Havdalah candle, it was anything but an ordinary moment. It was a reminder that, despite our different abilities, we are all bound together in the web of Judaism, braided like the strands of that candle.
This month, TRIBE calls attention to these connections, as we salute the too-often untold stories of the accomplishments of our local special-needs community. Perhaps more than anything, these articles remind us that we’re all in this together and, ultimately, not so different from one another.
I know that tradition says the Havdalah candle is about separation, but thanks to Morgan, I learned that candle can stand for something else, too. Turns out it’s the perfect gift to bring us together.
Photo: Morgan Vera Roseman became a bat mitzvah earlier this year. Photo by Jodye Alcon