It was a wondrous weekend in Cleveland, Ohio, as I attended the bat mitzvah of dear friends Geraldo and Erica Rivera’s daughter, Sol.
When our plane landed Friday night, we went straight to the majestic Capital Grille, which had closed for our private party to begin celebrating Sol’s “coming of age.”
We slipped into our seats just as Geraldo was greeting the 150 guests filling the booths and long tables of the restaurant. It was Shabbat, and at each table were sabbath candles and a traditional challah bread. After prayers, we filed into rooms set up with a buffet of steak, seafood, salad and pasta.
What fun to see people from the “Willowbrook Days,” a time in the 1970s when Geraldo was a rookie reporter for WABC-TV. He had broken the story of the abuse and neglect suffered by thousands of the people living at the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island.
My daughter Lara was in the Baby Rehabilitation Center. Budget cuts came soon after her arrival. My Bayside friends helped me create the Women’s Organization for Retarded Children (WORC); we marched, picketed and protested for a restoration of funds to Willowbrook, where 5,400 helpless people lived.
But our voices were as if we were talking to the clouds left unheard, and the government wasn’t listening. Finally, Geraldo’s passionate, relentless coverage of the abuse going on there was heard and seen through his voice — and no one could ignore it any more.
He came back week after week, many times interviewing me and following me as I took Lara home.
He also followed her father Murray, who with the Parents Association filed, and ultimately won, a class action lawsuit that resulted in closing Willowbrook down.
Today, that campus was transformed into the College of Staten Island — and the people who once lived at Willowbrook are living in dignity in the community in group homes and going to therapeutic day programs.
Geraldo has supported my group, now renamed Life’s WORC, over four decades. So for me, it was particularly sweet to be with him as he joyously celebrated his daughter’s right of passage into the Jewish faith.
On Saturday, the sabbath day, the sun shone brightly through the stunning stained glass windows of the majestic sanctuary. Sol greeted the 350 people who filled every comfortable armchair. She glowed as did her exultant parents as she led us through the prayers and read her portion of the Torah, as is the tradition of a bat or bar mitzvah.
In lieu of gifts, Sol had thoughtfully and generously asked us to support the Therapeutic Nursery at Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, New Jersey. What a wonderful way to make her bat mitzvah more meaningful, as the JCC helped her as an infant.
After the service we were treated to a lunch/kiddish at the synagogue, where I saw some old friends and met new ones.
We had a few hours before the celebration and party at the Riveras’ new home in Shaker Heights, Ohio, about 20 minutes from the Hyatt hotel in a shopping and dining complex called Legacy Village.
As we drove up the long driveway, the fun began with all the majestic trees lit up in pink lights. The doorway had a welcome sign that made me smile as I walked up the brick steps to the doorway. The Riveras home was transformed into a stunning party space.
The joyous feeling at the service continued into the party, with a rocking DJ and balloons filling the pool. There was also a virtual reality sports activity tent, a fun photo booth and a big party room for the kids.
Since my grandson’s bar mitzvah is next March, and he loves Broadway shows, I appreciated how Sol’s passion for Broadway was used as a theme throughout the party rooms.
The highlight of the bat mitzvah was dancing the hora, a celebratory dance done in a circle. We all danced and laughed as five strong men lifted Geraldo, then Erica, then Sol and her grandmother as they screeched while being sprung into the air.
It made me so happy to see the joy on their faces. It was a landmark event in their lives and I was so delighted to be there to share it.