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March 25, 2013
The first time I heard Michael Graner read Hebrew I knew I was in for trouble.
Bar/bat mitzvah tutoring is not the most prestigious or glamorous part of my job. Nevertheless, I pride myself on being sure that every child can read the Torah blessings and parsha (Torah portion) fluently.
When Michael came to my office that fall to have his Hebrew fluency evaluated, I had no reason to expect that he would be any different from my other students. I had observed Michael during mid-week Hebrew school over the years and I remembered him as a regular, boisterous 12-year-old.
"Go ahead and read the Torah blessings," I said to him.
"O.K.," he said. "Rabku at Edonee..." He stopped and looked up sheepishly.
"What?" I said, "Read it again." It was late in the afternoon and I assumed that fatigue was affecting my hearing.
"Rabku at Edonee," he read once more.
I winced at Michael's mispronunciations and seeming disregard for the Hebrew vowels and even its consonants.
"No," I said gently. "The first word of the Torah blessing is 'Barchu', not 'Rabku.' You're reading it backwards. Try it again."
"O.K.," Michael said agreeably. "Rabku at Edonee Haboregard..."
We were in deep trouble. Michael had been in Hebrew School for three years and had somehow managed to escape learning any Hebrew. In truth, he seemed to know some Hebrew, but he persisted in confusing one Hebrew consonant for another.
It was now October and his bar mitzvah service was seven months away. Faced with the almost insurmountable task of teaching Hebrew to Michael in seven months, I took a deep breath.
"Try it again," I said to Michael.
It was going to be a long afternoon. For a moment I began to wonder why I had never applied to law school...
To add one more wrinkle was the fact that Michael came from an interfaith family that desperately wanted him to have a bar mitzvah, but lacked any ability to reinforce Michael's Hebrew studies at home.
"Rabbi," said Michael's mom, "I'm not from a Jewish background, so I can't really help him prepare for his Hebrew studies."
"We know he can't read Hebrew well, if at all," said his father, but I've already forgotten most of the Hebrew I learned thirty years ago when I had my bar mitzvah."
"What should we do?" the mother asked me.
"Well," I suggested, "We could arrange for a private tutor for him."
"Rabbi," said the mom, "It's expensive to be Jewish. We would hire a tutor for him, but our budget is already stretched tight."
"If it were for summer camp," said his mother, "I could probably get my parents to chip in and help with the expenses. But my parents are Protestant and they have no clue about the importance of this day in Michael's life!"
"Rabbi, we know how important it is for interfaith families to affirm their child's Jewish identity. But we just can't afford the additional Hebrew tutoring. What should we do?"
"Oh," I said. "Well, in that case, I will tutor Michael privately, at no charge."
"How hard could it be?" I wondered to myself.
Two months went by, very slowly. His reading of the Torah blessings was still deeply flawed. Close, as they say, but no cigar.
Michael's Torah and Haftarah portions were in even worse shape. Michael could barely make his way through the first couple of words. How would he ever learn his parsha? How would I ever be able to train him to read directly from the Torah?
I honestly did not know how to teach Hebrew to someone who learned differently. Law School was looking better all the time.
That October I had lunch with a friend who is an educational consultant. I described my frustration over Michael's inability to grasp Hebrew.
"He's obviously got Dyslexia or some kind of Language Processing Disorder," she said.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"You know," she said to me. "His brain is not processing language in the way same way that you or I do. He's probably very bright," she continued, "but he's got to learn a language in a different way."
"Put the Torah blessings on YouTube, and let him listen to them over and over. Have him write the Hebrew out phonetically in English. See if that helps jumpstart him.
"He'll get it eventually," The consultant said to me. "He is going to learn the parsha a little differently than other kids. Just have faith."
I went home that afternoon thinking about learning disabilities and wondering what else I didn't know about teaching Hebrew. The weeks went by and I tried new techniques every week.
I posted the blessings online and made Michael listen to them every day. I recorded a sound file of his parsha and downloaded it to his iPod. Michael listened to the sound files every single day, as if they were the newest lectures from Tony Robbins or some other motivational speaker! I taught Michael to recognize syllables, instead of just words. I had Michael whisper the prayers and then I experimented with having him shout them at the top of his voice.
I tried at every Hebrew lesson to have faith in Michael. And even on the days that he faltered and failed to recognize any of the Hebrew I tried to just put my faith in, well, You-Know-Who.
Keep trying," I told him as we were struggling with the Torah portion one day. "Never give up," I said to him. "Never give in."
A month later, when he learned to sing the Torah trope, Michael's face brightened. My educational consultant had suggested that this might happen. Some kids with learning disabilities do better when they sing than when they read.
"Go figure," I said to myself. "I'm a congregational rabbi, not a neuropsychologist!"
One day in February, Michael walked into my office. He opened his siddur and without a word of introduction he sang in a clear voice "Barchu et Adonai..."
"What?" I asked incredulously.
He then again repeated the Torah blessing fluently and without a mistake. Just like that. One week he couldn't do it and then the next week he did it flawlessly. Michael had gone from not knowing it to getting it. I couldn't credit my inspired teaching or even the advice from the consultant I had used. It was almost as if a miracle had happened.
"How did you finally learn it?" I asked Michael.
"I just practiced like you told me," he replied. And then Michael looked down and began to chant the "V'ahavta," the full version of the Sh'ma.
A few months after that, Michael came to the bima and chanted the entire service effortlessly. He then chanted his aliyot, without a mistake. Only a few people in the room could truly know what a triumph that moment must have felt like for Michael.
Of course Michael's Jewish grandparents were moved by the bar mitzvah of their grandson. But even Michael's Christian grandparents were touched by the importance of Jewish values their daughter had helped give their grandson.
I learned many lessons from tutoring Michael that year.
Learning disabled kids are just like other kids. They need help and they need love. And interfaith families are the same as all Jewish families. They need to know that their rabbi will support them in what can be the difficult task of raising Jewish children when one parent isn't Jewish.
As Michael was chanting his haftarah, I caught a glimpse of his parents, their faces bathed in pride. I looked away, my own eyes starting to mist. We were watching a young boy begin the long odyssey from ignorance to literacy, from confusion to commitment. Watching Michael that day, I marveled at the strength that God gives us to overcome whatever flaws or deficits we may have. Having conquered his inability to read Hebrew, Michael was now over the hump.
I guess I was, too.
The legal profession was safe from me, at least for the time being. The rabbinate had suddenly become fulfilling again.