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Ellie receiving a blessing from her mother Jen, and father Adam.
Ellie receiving a blessing from her mother Jen, and father Adam.

Creativity is key

Jen and Adam Anolik have two daughters, Ellie and Sarah. Ellie is the oldest and has intellectual disabilities. It was important to Jen and Adam that both of their daughters participate in Jewish life and learning. They really wanted both daughters to feel the same sense of accomplishment from a meaningful and joyful bat mitzvah experience.

Jen proactively sought out and found a congregation dedicated to an inclusive Jewish community. At the time (over 20 years ago), Temple Sinai in Rochester, New York, had a clear culture of inclusion but no formal programming. Thankfully, over the past decade, specific initiatives to create an inclusive Jewish learning environment have increased in Rochester and across the country. The Anolik family now participates in Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) events and the Accessibility and Inclusion Committee at Temple Sinai.

Ellie spent more than two years preparing for her bat mitzvah on May 8, 2004. The date of her bat mitzvah was not determined by her birthday but by her readiness. She attended religious classes at Temple Sinai. Robin Shiffrin, the education director at that time, was committed to helping to tailor programming for Ellie. The family described this as a “learning on the fly” experience, requiring trial and error to find what worked best. Ellen Goldenberg, a religious education tutor, helped create for Ellie an IEP (individual education plan) with a focus on art and music. Ellie also worked with her parents to memorize and to chant the Torah portion. Printouts of the Torah portion were posted throughout their home to support repetition, practice, and learning. Jen and Adam recall how the bat mitzvah preparation and service were very much a family affair, with Jen and Adam chanting Torah and Haftorah respectively, and Sarah leading several of the prayers.

Ellie is a very talented artist. Working with artist Nancy Kraus, Ellie painted her interpretation of her Torah portion on her tallit. The tallit beautifully depicts nature: water, sky, and seven trees to symbolize the resting of the land every seven years as described in the Torah portion. According to Jen, Rabbi Sapowith’s creativity, flexibility, and rapport with Ellie were key to the success of the bat mitzvah. Together with Rabbi Sapowith, Ellie used her tallit as a visual aide to present her Torah commentary. In the months before the service, Ellie also created several meaningful paintings that related to the Torah and Haftorah. During the bat mitzvah service, Ellie’s paintings were displayed on the bimah. One of Ellie’s paintings included a globe covered with the word tzedakah, the Hebrew word for charity. Ellie’s tallit bag is illustrated with wheat in the corners, relating to the Torah wisdom of leaving a portion of one’s harvest in the corner of the fields for those who are hungry (Leviticus 23:22). These paintings express a genuine understanding of such Jewish values as being charitable and making a positive impact on our world.

Traditionally, the Torah is removed from the ark and passed from grandparents to parents to the child. The Torah is quite heavy. For this reason, Ellie was provided a lighter weight Torah to hold and to carry. This seemingly small modification gave Ellie—literally and figuratively—the opportunity to hold the Torah close to her heart.

On that day and over the years, friends and relatives commented that Ellie’s bat mitzvah was one of the most beautiful and meaningful services they’ve ever seen.

 

“Try your best. Keep trying hard.
It doesn’t have to be perfect.”
–Ellie Anolik

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