May 10, 2007
Nes Gadol calls its first autistic students to the Torah
B'nai mitzvah -- and a big miracle -- at West L.A.'s Vista Del Mar
(Page 2 - Previous Page)With the help of his TypeSmart and a speech therapist, Neal recently talked about his bar mitzvah.
"It will be a great celebration, a happening," Neal wrote. "It is when I will make a commitment to the Torah."
And despite his inability to speak, his thoughts about his Torah portion, Beha'alotecha, come through loud and clear.
"To pick a humble act is how I show patience to my life each day. I have to be humble to God when I am challenged with autism. My humility comes in my love and humor," he wrote.
The other student due to read from the Torah this month with Nes Gadol is William Lambert.
His speech is matter-of-fact and monotone. There's no inflection or subtext to the 15-year-old's words, nothing added, but also nothing held back. He will tell you his bar mitzvah wasn't his idea, but the process has helped him build self-confidence in an area where he is struggling academically.
"To tell the truth, originally my parents sort of forced me.... Well, I'm also now doing it for myself, because now I can actually learn a language very well," he said, referring to his Hebrew study.
Since he has been struggling in Spanish at Village Glen in Culver City, one of several day schools serving special-needs children administrated by The Help Group, William was worried that his difficulties with language acquisition would follow him in the Hebrew portion of his bar mitzvah program. But so far that hasn't been the case.
"My parents put me there because they thought I'd have a hard time learning Hebrew. But I'm really used to it now," he said.
Nes Gadol uses a prayer book and materials inspired by a special-needs program used by the Masorti movement, Israel's version of Conservative Judaism. Puzarne said there wasn't much time to schedule programming once he and Hall took on the assignment. "We had to pull together a program in months," he said. "We had to illustrate almost every Hebrew word, and I'm now taking that back to my typical kids."
Some autistic children learn visually, while others learn through auditory cues or movement.
Visual icons are placed over every Hebrew word in the prayer book, and CDs of prayers are also distributed to students to help them study. Prayers are also taught through movement and storytelling for those who are kinesthetic learners.
Since joining the program in February, William said he's become used to the language study, but he feels he doesn't connect well with his special-needs peers.
"There's a lot of people that sort of have these disabilities, and there's nothing wrong with it, but I don't get along with them," he said.
After his bar mitzvah this month, William said he isn't expecting to join a synagogue or continue with his Jewish learning. However, he may continue to study Hebrew, "except at a different place," he said.
Before William turned 13, his father, Lambert, and mother, Anna Esther, investigated synagogue-based bar mitzvah programs. Lambert said finding a program that wouldn't require membership or cost the family thousands of dollars was difficult. Another option, one-to-one private tutoring, would have been prohibitively expensive, he added.
"Not being a member really limits your options," said Lambert, a 56-year-old high school chemistry teacher.
Lambert and Esther found the b'nai mitzvah program through word of mouth at Vista Del Mar, where the family's younger son, who is more severely autistic, attends school at the outpatient Julie Ann Singer Center.
The Vista Del Mar b'nai mitzvah program is costing the families hundreds, rather than thousands of dollars.
Diane Isaacs, 45, said that her family never expected to have a bar mitzvah for her 12-year-old son, Wyatt, since they aren't religious.
"It was really Wyatt's choice," she said.
His bar mitzvah date is set for Feb. 11, 2008, but his mother thinks that might be a bit too soon.
"When you think of a bar mitzvah, it's kind of like this whole intensive training," she said, adding that she wished her son could experience the same years-long Hebrew school background that his other Jewish friends will have. "But he surprises me. He might drop in and get it on a very profound level."
Isaacs says that the program's more relaxed approach to the bar mitzvah training is probably better for her son, whose autism was diagnosed when his academic performance slipped in first grade. "It's going to be a good way for him to experience it, instead of stressing him out and giving him anxiety," she said.
Wyatt, who appears with fellow student Neal Katz in the Miracle Project documentary "Autism: The Musical," says what is intimidating him the most right now is the thought of facing an audience as he stands on the bimah.
"Standing in front of all those people is going to be hard, because you have all those eyes on you," Wyatt said.
For all these boys, Nes Gadol has provided a spiritual community in which to develop friendships with teens who share a similar diagnosis. While Wyatt's own bar mitzvah is still nearly a year away, he plans to attend Neal and William's bar mitzvah on May 28.
"That's the way friends work," he said.
And while he's nervous about the possibility of making a mistake in front of friends and family during his own simcha, he's just as excited about the very things typical boys like about their bar mitzvah: presents and being called a man.
"Because then I can be a little more mature, like I'm a man," he said.
For more information about Nes Gadol, call (310) 836-1223, ext. 615, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Vista Del Mar
The Miracle Project
Autism: The Musical
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