Thelma Goldberg slowly walked up to the wooden pulpit, leaned over the open Torah scrolls and began chanting a traditional Hebrew hymn. When she finished, the silver-haired, bespectacled woman, draped in a white and blue fringed prayer shawl, looked out at the congregation and beamed.
At age 56, Thelma Goldberg, who is mentally retarded, had just performed the Jewish bat mitzvah ritual.
Each week, thousands of Jewish youths perform the same centuries-old rite. But when Goldberg and three of her colleagues gathered around the Torah yesterday to read prayers and sing ancient Hebrew blessings, it was the first time that a group of mentally retarded adults had performed a joint bar/bat mitzvah ceremony in the District of Columbia, according to the Board of Jewish Education of Greater Washington.
Paul Harris, 45, also mentally retarded, was consecrated yesterday, an initiation ceremony after the first year of Jewish study.
According to Jewish tradition, a bar mitzvah for boys or a bat mitzvah for girls marks their passage to adulthood at the age of 12 or 13. For Goldberg, Steven Fox, in his early forties, Allan Haber, in his late thirties, and Harold Rosenstein, 43, the ritual went one step further: It symbolized their journey to dignity and independence.
The four used to live in Forest Haven, the District's former institution for the mentally retarded in Laurel. Ten years ago, Forest Haven was ordered closed, and the residents were sent to group homes throughout the city, often to the protest of neighbors in their new communities.
"Sometimes people make fun of us -- because of the way we look, or how we talk, or even because we're Jewish," Goldberg said in a speech she read to about 75 guests -- relatives, friends and D.C. Council members -- who packed the tiny chapel of Tifereth Israel Congregation at 16th and Juniper streets NW.
Although the four had been exposed to Judaism at a young age and later at Forest Haven, they had never studied their heritage or participated directly in a Jewish ceremony.
"Today is the day we've been working for and waiting for -- to show how much we've learned and to share our joy at being Jewish," said Goldberg, who lived in Forest Haven for 30 years.
The emotional two-hour ceremony brought tears to the congregation. As Goldberg read her speech, her 85-year-old father's eyes welled up. "I thought of the miracle of Moses, who divided the Red Sea," said Jack Goldberg, who lives in Wheaton. "This, too, was a miracle."
"I'm elated," said Steve Fox's mother Rose at a reception after the ceremony. "It was amazing, unbelievable. Everyone was crying."
Amid the tears, there were ripples of affectionate laughter. When the group's teacher, Sunny Harris of Annandale, praised their progress, Fox and Haber stood up from the front row, turned to the congregation, threw up their arms and bowed.
"Thank you, thank you," said the two men in white skullcaps as the room filled with chuckling and applause.
The idea for yesterday's bar/bat mitzvah was born after the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center and the Board of Jewish Education of Greater Washington, Shema V'Ezer School, sponsored the District's first education and recreation program for mentally retarded Jewish adults in March. The Foundation for Jewish Studies partially funded the program.
Jan Eichhorn, a member of the community center, and others organized several parties for former residents of the institution to celebrate Jewish holidays. "They had a real sense of being Jewish," said Eichhorn. "They remembered a lot of songs and symbols from their youths and from their parents. To our surprise, Steve Fox even pulled out a yarmulke and put it on his head."
The four met twice a month for study and once a month to participate in a cultural program, such as listening to Jewish music or baking hallah, the bread of the weekly Sabbath ritual.
Rabbi A. Nathan Abramowitz, who presided over yesterday's ceremony, explained that the Torah portion the four read in Hebrew was about "sacrifice to the Lord." It referred to sacrifice as a "sweet savor, a special fragrance, that needed to be without blemish and wholehearted."
"That is what we had here this special morning," said Abramowitz. "It was an atmosphere without parallel, an effort wholehearted and without reserve. Those that participated gave everything they had."