“There was never a question that Jack would be a full member of this community,” says Rabbi Rena Rifkin, director of youth education here at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.
But it hadn’t always been so certain: Jack was born with multiple disabilities. “We really wanted Jack to be able to attend Religious School and have a bar mitzvah,” recall his parents, Jodie and Ron Fischer. So they spoke with Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch and the then- director of the Religious School, who were determined to see Jack called to the bimah.
Enter Will Quigley, an eighth grader who became a madrich — or teen helper — at the Religious School. “When I first met Jack, I remember thinking that he was the sweetest kid,” says Will, who’d been hoping to get something good to put on his college applications. “The job ended up being a little different than I was expecting — and it turned out to be one of the most important experiences of my life.”
“Will helped make it so Jack could participate fully. And while everyone knew he was unique, his classmates respected and included him like any other student,” explains Rabbi Rifkin. “Jack loved everyone and brightened up everyone’s day,” Will adds. “It was my privilege to watch him develop and mature in ways that I couldn’t have even imagined.”
“They had this mutual, caring relationship that was just so heartwarming,” Jodie remembers. “I love Will!” Jack exclaims unabashedly.
Ainsley Scheiner, who’s been a madricha for three years now, is having a similar experience: “I’ve learned so much about leadership and being a good role model. It’s inspiring to see the generations passing through our school. Now I’m working with students whose siblings I taught in my first year.”
“It’s so important for us to have these teen volunteers giving back to the school,” says Rabbi Rifkin. “They understand what it’s like to be a student here and they can help in ways that teachers can’t. Our teachers mentor the madrichim as they explore what it means to be looked up to as Jewish leaders and educators. We want to make sure they get the most out of the time they give.”
Jack became a bar mitzvah last January at a small ceremony in our sanctuary. “Watching him read from the Torah was awesome,” Will remembers with pride. “As
parents, it was everything we wanted for our child,” say Jodie and Ron. “We’re so appreciative of everyone who helped make it possible.”
As for Jack: “I really enjoyed it!” he says. “I sang and danced and clapped.”
Cover photo: The Fischer family celebrated Jack’s bar mitzvah last January. Photo by Chris Herder Photography.