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July 12, 2007

The Miracle of Brandon

Special-needs teen and congregation share joy of his bar mitzvah

http://www.jewishjournal.com/bar_and_bat_mitzvahs/article/the_miracle_of_brandon_20070713

Brandon Kaplan, center, stands on the bimah with his father Michael and sister Jennifer

Brandon Kaplan, center, stands on the bimah with his father Michael and sister Jennifer

The anticipation surrounding Brandon Kaplan's bar mitzvah had been growing for months. I was excited when my invitation for the May 26 celebration arrived; it was an honor to be included among those who would witness Brandon becoming a bar mitzvah.

But I was curious and skeptical about Brandon's abilities to actually perform the necessary mitzvot. He doesn't speak, his sight is impaired and he has undiagnosed developmental disabilities.

Brandon has been at services for the last seven years, and I have always delighted in seeing how responsive he was to Cantor Doug Cotler's music. During Rabbi Paul Kipnes' services, I have seen him hug his beloved plush Torah to his chest and smile. But does he know what that represents?

Brandon found joy in the midst of our congregational family. Certainly he was a shining fixture at services. But Torah? And God? Would that be beyond Brandon's grasp?

As he was studying and learning prayers in sign language in preparation for his simcha, the synagogue established the Brandon Kaplan Special Needs Fund, a synagogue assistance program for special-needs families.

On the Friday night before the bar mitzvah service, congregants gathered at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas to celebrate with Brandon. One member who is a professional flautist even came to play for him. When we were told that Brandon would be unable to attend the services, because he was resting and preparing for his big day, it didn't seem to matter. We were there to celebrate Brandon and what he was about to achieve.

The excitement in the sanctuary was palpable. After Friday night services, members stayed behind to help set up chairs to accommodate the large group expected the next morning. It seemed that everyone wanted to be a part of this simcha, and it had nothing to do with the fact that Brandon's father, Michael, is our congregation's president, or that his mother, Dina, is an advocate for children with special needs.

We have all watched Brandon grow over the past seven years -- grow as a person and as a member of the congregation, including in our Mishpacha Family Alternative Learning Program, in a support group for families with special-needs children and in regular attendance at services.

There was a thrill in the air Saturday morning. As the guests arrived, they each received a package of Kleenex and a red bracelet featuring Brandon's name and the bar mitzvah date. The sanctuary was filled beyond capacity as the service began.

Rabbi Kipnes said, "There are two values being played out today, simultaneously. Brandon is a kid like any other kid created in the image of God, worthy of love. But Brandon is also a special kid, and there is an honor and joy to our congregation that he participates to the fullness of his abilities. So he's normal and special, but here's the secret: so is every other kid."

Brandon stood on the bimah with his dad and sister, Jennifer. As he faced his mom for prompts, Brandon clearly and distinctly signed the "Shema" and parts of the V'ahavta. He swayed with the liturgical music as he was held in the arms of his father. He had a look of unadulterated joy on his face as he marched around the congregation holding the Torah.

No one in that sanctuary could deny that somewhere within his universe, Brandon had connected to God and to the light and teachings of Torah. Also, the Kleenex was not going to go to waste.

When it was time for the rabbi to have "the private moment of blessing" before the ark, as he has with all our b'nai mitzvah, he turned to Brandon, held his shoulders, touched his smiling face and spoke so no one but Brandon could hear.

I was struck at how this was just another kid becoming a bar mitzvah. How beautiful it was; how right and normal it felt.

I suddenly "got" that Brandon is a uniquely spiritual young man who has served as a teacher to all of us who too often use the words "can't" and "unable." Although the attention to detail was extraordinary on the part of Brandon's parents, teachers and clergy, it was clearly Brandon's day to shine, and shine he did.

While we do not ordinarily applaud our b'nai mitzvah, it was a most appropriate way for us to show Brandon our love, pride and approval.

Afterward, there was a wonderful party at Brandon's Village, Calabasas' universally accessible playground established in his honor. The weather was beautiful, and everyone had a terrific time.

As I was leaving, I saw Rabbi Kipnes and told him how proud I was of Brandon and his family, as well as our congregation, for being a place in which such an event would be so openly embraced.

The rabbi said, "See what happens when you get out of the way and let things happen."

Karen Harris serves as a vice president of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, where she lives with her husband and son.

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