Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

This year, the b-mitzvah students and I are studying Jewish values. At the start of the school year we focused on teshuvah, repentance or return — the value at the heart of the Days of Awe. After that, we began a unit on b’tzelem Elohim: the idea that we are all made in the image of God. As the capstone on that unit of learning, I’m showing them a documentary called Praying With Lior, about a young man with Down syndrome who is preparing to become bar mitzvah. Here’s a trailer for the film for those who are curious. (If you want to watch the film, it can be streamed at Plex or Tubi with a few ads.)

The movie expresses many of the Jewish values in our curriculum. At the top of the list is the one we’re studying now, b’tzelem Elohim. Most of us may not know anyone with Down syndrome, and Lior may seem different or strange. Our tradition teaches that he is absolutely made in the divine image, no less (or more) than anyone else.

But in this film and in the real communities and people therein, I also find gevurah, strength of character. I find achrayut, community-mindedness and responsibility for each other. I find hakarat ha-tov, seeing the good, cultivating gratitude, and appreciating our blessings. All of these will be part of our b-mitzvah curriculum in the spring semester. In a bigger sense, they are part of everyone’s spiritual curriculum — values that Judaism asks all of us to cultivate and strengthen.

I hope that my students will take a few lessons away from the film. One is that as a community, we have a responsibility to and for each other. Another is that all of us, including people with disabilities and people who are neurodivergent, can and should be full participants in community life. A third is that becoming b-mitzvah is about growth and meaning, no matter who we are.

For those of us who are older than thirteen, I hope that these lessons still hold true. Community-mindedness, inclusion, and the invitation to growth and meaning are core to Jewish life at any age.

The word chanukah means dedication (as in chanukat ha-bayit, the dedication of a new home.) May the lights of the coming Chanukah — and the flames of our second annual Chanukah bonfire, see below! — inspire us to rededicate ourselves to these values. And in that merit, may our winter be filled with the lights of wholeness and hope.

Blessings to all,

— Rabbi Rachel