BY: FERN SIDMAN
For most Jewish boys, the months prior to their 13th birthday are rife with anticipation as they immerse themselves in the preparations for their upcoming Bar Mitzvah. It is this rite of passage into manhood that marks a very special day for the entire family and community. The guest list, the caterer, the musicians, the photographer, the new suits and dresses are all top priorities, as the family buzzes with excitement and a flurry of activity takes place. Clearly, everyone wants the memories of this momentous day to be emblazoned in their hearts and minds forever.
Sunday February 14th, which also happened to be the first day of the Hebrew month of Adar (signifying a time of joy and gladness for the Jewish people as they prepare to celebrate Purim), marked the day in which one very special boy with special needs had his most unique bar mitzvah celebration. Baruch Shlomo HaLevi Gershbein was diagnosed with autism as a toddler and while his severely limited verbal and comprehensive skills may militate against his pronunciations of the appropriate blessings, his family was determined to afford him the same opportunity as other Jewish boys of his age.
“Baruch Shlomo is quite close to being non-verbal at this point. We have hope that he will speak more in the future, but his vocabulary – other than words related to eating – is probably no more than a score of words”, said his father, Steven (Shmuel) Gershbein, a noted Brooklyn attorney specializing in representing the civil rights of the handicapped community as well as a rabbi dedicated to opening up the riches of Judaism to special needs individuals. “I practiced the B’rachot (blessings) with him nearly every day for the past three-and-a-half years. We missed rehearsing perhaps two or three days a year. I knew that he would memorize the melody for these blessings because he has quite a gift for recalling tunes. I was impressed with his courage when he actually attempted to say about two or three of the words with me when the Torah (Scroll of The Law) was on the Bimah (table) and we shared an Aliyah (elevation to the Torah)” he said.
The 50 plus guests including family and friends gathered at Congregation Khal Bnei Yisroel, located in the Midwood section of Brooklyn to partake in the glorious celebration. As Baruch Shlomo completed his stalwart attempt to recite the blessings, a palpable joy filled the synagogue as the congregation burst forth with strains of “Siman Tov u’Mazel Tov” the traditional words sung at a simcha (joyous occasion). “I have known Baruch Shlomo since the day he was born and I can sincerely say that he is a simply adorable boy who radiates a certain “Chein” (charm and love) and his infectious smile lights up the world” said Frimet Tzirel Rosenblatt, a close family friend. Among those thanking the assemblage for their unwavering support and encouragement were Baruch Shlomo’s parents, Rabbi Steven Gershbein, Baruch’s mother Chaviva Gershbein, his paternal grandparents, Stanley and Carol Gershbein of Fort Lauderdale, Florida and his great Aunt Lila of Oceanside, New York.
“We are all very proud of Baruch Shlomo and on his behalf I wish to thank each and every one of you for coming today and helping to enhance this joyous day” said the exuberant grandfather, Stanley Gershbein. Several prominent speakers were also in attendance including Rabbi Tzvi Mandel, the officiating rabbi at Cong. Khal Bnei Yisroel and nephew of the founder of the legendary Yeshiva of Brooklyn, Rabbi Manis Mandel, ZT”L and New York State Supreme Court Justice for the County of Kings, Judge Leon Ruchelsman. “Our shul (synagogue) is privileged to host the bar mitzvah of Baruch Shlomo Gershbein and we are deeply impressed with the love that everyone assembled here today has for this incredibly sweet neshoma (soul). May his parents, grandparents, extended family and friends always derive a great deal of nachas (joy) from him”, said Rabbi Mandel as he embraced Baruch Shlomo.
During his speech, the boy’s father, Rabbi Steven Gershbein spoke of the joys and challenges of raising a special needs child. “Baruch Shlomo have never given me a moment of sorrow. He gives me no pain. He has only given me joy. Raising a special needs child is hard. It is challenging and anyone who tells you that it is not an arduous, back breaking and soul crushing task is not telling the truth. While the challenges are indeed far greater than in raising a non-special needs child, so too are those moments of intensified sweetness when you make eye contact with an autistic child and your heart swells with love”, he said.
Judge Leon Ruchelsman, a close family friend said of the magnanimity of Baruch Shlomo’s father, “It seems that each time I meet Rabbi Gershbein, he is on his cell phone immersed in a conversation pertaining to helping someone. He is consistently involved in helping to relieve the pain of others and is not mired in self pity. With everything that he has to deal with concerning Baruch Shlomo, he still has time to perform acts of loving kindness and I am always deeply moved and so greatly impressed by that”, he said.
The entire Gershbein family wishes to extend their deepest thanks to those who made this bar mitzvah a reality. “Firstly, we praise and thank the Almighty G-d of Israel for allowing us to reach this day. Praise G-d for He is good; His kindness is forever. The Talmud in tractates Berachot and Sanhedrin note the importance of gratitude and our sages of blessed memory say that ingratitude is akin to idol worship, so we wish to thank everyone who showed up today and we thank every person who ever performed a single kind deed for Baruch Shlomo” said Rabbi Gershbein.
He continued, “Chief among these are: the Mora D’Asra, HaRav HaGaon Rabbi Tzvi Mandel for permitting us to have this event in his shteibel, small in size but large in the eyes of heaven. We also thank his holy rebbetzin, Chaya Shaindel Mandel, a therapist in private practice and the head of a division of Ohel. We thank my Rebbe, HaRav Perlow, for his years of instruction relative to how to live in this world and how to be worthy in the world to come. We also thank Baruch Shlomo’s grandparents Stanley and Carol Gershbein, who raised me with honor and integrity and taught me how to appreciate the good in life.
Very special thanks go to Baruch Shlomo’s wonderful and exceptionally dedicated mother Chaviva Gershbein, my dear friend and my son’s adopted uncle, Frank Vasile, who does just about everything you can think of to make Baruch Shlomo’s life a happy and productive one. This event would not have come to fruition without his constant help and tireless devotion. We also would not be here today if it were not for the hard work and incredible organizational skills of Sam and Francine Schloss, Rob and Susie Kaiserman and countless others. May Baruch Shlomo learn the lessons of kindness, integrity and dignity from these individuals and may G-d grant him the ability to go from strength to strength.”