Blowing a shofar via a mechanical device? When 23-year-old Peter Ruiz, who has cerebral palsy, presses a touch screen at Congregation Or Chadash’s contemporary Rosh Hashanah service on Thursday, Sept. 9 at 8:30 a.m., he will remarkably do just that. “This may be the first time this has been done anywhere in the United States,” says Peter’s mother, Bernadette Ruiz.
She first got the idea last year at Or Chadash’s High Holiday services. Peter, who became a Bar Mitzvah in April 2008, last year read a prayer at the service, and he has been involved at Or Chadash Friday night services throughout the year.
“I thought about the shofar idea last year,” says Bernadette Ruiz. A congregant’s blowing of the shofar didn’t compare to Rabbi Thomas Louchheim’s, but she realized, “everybody should be able to try. Then my kid should be able to because he thinks he’s a rabbi.”
Peter’s mother discussed her idea with her husband, Joaquin Ruiz, who garnered the help of two of his colleagues at the University of Arizona’s College of Science. On Aug. 29, Peter first tried the device, which was constructed by Bruce Bayly, an associate professor of mathematics, and Brad Story, an associate professor of speech and hearing sciences.
When the sound emerged “it was a bit different than a real shofar,” says Bernadette Ruiz. “Peter was startled. He jumped.” Although he didn’t say much to his parents, when Ruiz attended the Taglit program the next day at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, she says, “he couldn’t stop talking about it” to his peers. The JCC’s daily full-time Taglit program is for young adults with special needs.
“I’m really excited about blowing the shofar. I’ll be doing a mitzvah,” Ruiz said during an interview at the AJP office, where he was accompanied by Hannah Shenfeld, his Taglit support worker. An aspiring journalist himself, Ruiz’s goal is to interview all the rabbis in Tucson during the next year.
“My New Year’s resolution is to learn how to be a rabbi,” he says. “It’s what I want to do more than anything.” Ruiz meets weekly with Ed Wright, director of the University of Arizona’s Center for Judaic Studies. “I have been impressed by his intense interest and touched by his sincere heart. I always come away from our meetings inspired,” says Wright, who teaches Ruiz basic aspects of Jewish history, religion and culture.
“Peter wants to become a rabbi, and if it is in part commitment to Judaism and a love for others that characterize a rabbi,” he says, “Peter is already well on his way to becoming Rabbi Peter.”
Another example of Ruiz’s immersion in the Jewish community occurs weekly during the school year. He reads a picture book aloud in Rabbi Billy’s fourth grade class at the Tucson Hebrew Academy; students then translate the book into Hebrew.
More than anything, Ruiz’s passion for Judaism is exemplified by his involvement at Or Chadash. “Peter has inspired members of our congregation for years,” says Louchheim. “It’s amazing what he’s accomplished. And, he adds, “it’s important for congregations across the country to realize that they can create possibilities for people with significant disabilities to participate.”
The positive effect is mutual, says Bernadette Ruiz. “The [Tucson] Jewish community has completely opened its arms to Peter.”