Shay Vinitsky began studying privately for his bar mitzvah in spring 2009, a full year before his March 2010 date. But it wasn’t until the next winter, when Shay and his classmates at the Ohn School for the Physically Disabled, a Tel Aviv school for students with cerebral palsy, began to participate in a bar/bat mitzvah project that his excitement truly began to build.
Enrolled in the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Program for Children With Special Needs, which is run by the Masorti movement, the Conservative movement’s sister in Israel, Shay and his friends spent three months studying the blessings, Shabbat, customs, festivals and performing mitzvot. At the end of the school year, the students participated in a joint bar and bat mitzvah ceremony in a Masorti synagogue accessible to the disabled.
The program, which ran in 30 schools until recent budget cuts limited it to 18 schools, is unique in that it includes students from every conceivable Jewish background, from secular to ultra-Orthodox. In all, more than 3,000 disabled children and adults have celebrated their rite of passage with the program.
The children have a wide range of physical and developmental challenges, including blindness, hearing impairments, autism, cognitive disabilities, severe learning disabilities and ADD/ADHD.
While the ceremonies are communal, every child is called up individually for an aliyah, family members alongside them.
Although Shay would have had a bar mitzvah with or without the special-needs program — he and his able-bodied twin brother also had a private ceremony — many, perhaps most of the participants would not have had this opportunity, according to Zivah Nativ, the program’s director.
“Sometimes parents don’t even consider the possibility of their children having a bar mitzvah, not knowing such options are available,” Nativ said. “Certainly, most of the children would not have the opportunity to celebrate in a regular synagogue in Israel,” the vast majority of which aren’t equipped for the physically challenged.
Working on the assumption that every child is entitled to the same opportunities, the Masorti movement sends its teachers into special-education schools, where they teach a specially created curriculum with special prayer books. The program relies on donations, some financial assistance from various municipalities and a token payment by the student’s parents.
The teachers often use the latest communications technology to help the children reach their potential. For example, they adapt regular voice output machines (such as the one scientist Stephen Hawking uses) by incorporating Judaism-related pictures that nonverbal children can point to. The machine then articulates the messages.
A great deal of time is spent on the principle of Jewish values, and program participants are encouraged to help others whenever possible. Some children visit the elderly; others care for animals.
“In one of the educational units, we teach the value of saying thank you,” Nativ said. “The children compose personal blessings and say thank you for the things they appreciate in their lives.”
Nativ recalled how “one girl who uses a wheelchair … composed a blessing thanking God for her mouth. She’s a very happy, very smiley person and is grateful for what she does have.”
During his bar mitzvah two years ago, Or Guttel, a nonverbal child with severe cognitive disabilities, used a voice machine to thank his grandmother. His grandmother, Claudine Guttel, still recalls the day with great pride.
“It was like a dream,” Guttel said of her grandson’s ceremony and blessing. “Had you told me Or would ever have an aliyah to the Torah, I wouldn’t have believed it. The program made it possible.”
Guttel, who is Orthodox, said she was very impressed by her grandson’s teacher and the rabbi – both Masorti Jews — who worked with his class.
“The teacher made a wonderful connection with Or. She taught him Jewish symbols related to the chagim [holidays], the mezuzah, the Torah, a kippah. And just as his teachers have taught him to use photos to tell us he wants a sandwich with chocolate, the teacher taught him to ‘say’ blessings. He chose what blessings to say at the bar mitzvah.”
Guttel said her usually withdrawn grandson “got to know the rav. He danced with his teacher and the other students. He was with his friends. He felt he wasn’t alone.”
Or’s grandmother says that, since his bar mitzvah, he now appreciates Shabbat in a different way.
“Every Friday, he comes home excited from school, knowing Shabbat will begin soon,” Guttel said. “He used to insist on wearing a T-shirt. Now he himself puts on a white shirt and tallit and wears them the entire Shabbat.”
Gil Vinitsky, Shay’s father, says that having a communal bar mitzvah was a big thing for his son. “He wore tefillin and a tallit, and all of his friends and teachers and school administrators were there,” he said.
For the Vinitskys, who consider themselves secular, experiencing a Masorti ceremony was an eye-opener. Because Israeli lifecycle events like marriage and divorce are under the sole authority of the Orthodox Rabbinate, most Israelis are never exposed to non-Orthodox Judaism.
“It was a very nice ceremony because the boys and girls were together, and Shay’s mother was able to be right next to him during his aliyah to the Torah. She felt very comfortable with it,” Vinitsky said.
In a letter to Nativ, another parent said she had wondered for years how to celebrate her disabled son’s bar mitzvah. “We feared it would be a painful and degrading experience,” she said.
The Masorti program was the perfect option, the mother wrote, “one of the most joyful events in our lives.
“I will be happy to help you so that other children with special needs can have this experience as well,” wrote the grateful mother.
Nativ said the program, which had been six months long, was recently cut to three months due to a lack of funding. She said that every contribution, no matter how small, makes a difference.
The program especially welcomes partnerships with bar and bat mitzvah kids in the Diaspora “because it enables them to share what they themselves are experiencing,” Nativ said.
In the past, kids have organized a group gift from their bar/bat mitzvah class, day school, youth group chapter, summer camp or sports team. They have designated a portion of their gifts for the program, or asked guests to contribute in their honor. Others have organized read-a-thons, swim-a-thons, soccer ball kick-a-thons and mitzvah fairs.
“It’s a special partnership,” Nativ said.
For more information, contact the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel at (212) 870-2216 or online at masorti.org.