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Jewish Journal

Torah Lover Beats Odds

by Beverly Gray

September 13, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Joey Schwartzman has a passion for clocks. He is also crazy about street addresses, dates and numbers of any kind. And he has one more enthusiasm not often seen in 15-year-old boys: he loves reading Torah and Haftorah at his synagogue, Westchester's B'nai Tikvah Congregation.

What makes this truly remarkable is the fact that Joey has been diagnosed as autistic. A few years back, he was likely to disrupt services, or fall asleep on a couch outside the sanctuary. But he was fortunate to be part of a warm-hearted community that has known his family for three generations. As his bar mitzvah approached, a congregant with a background in psychological counseling devised a special Hebrew school curriculum for him and another boy with autism.

Joey's parents also shared with him their own areas of expertise. Jeff Schwartzman, a math teacher who for 15 years has been one of the congregation's chief Torah readers, taught his son the intricate system of musical tropes that allows him to read accurately from the Torah scrolls. His mother, Chellie Schwartzman, tutored him in chanting the section of the service drawn from the writings of the prophets.

Autism is a wide-ranging disorder affecting social and communication skills. But higher-functioning autistic youngsters can have special talents too. Joey is blessed with a keen memory, as well as impressive musical gifts. He has perfect pitch, and upon hearing a noise -- like the ding of an elevator bell -- can correctly identify its pitch. All this has helped him master the prayer service, leading him to become a mainstay of B'nai Tikvah's Shabbat and High Holy Day celebrations.

On mornings when Jeff Schwartzman serves as Torah reader, Joey often assists in the role of gabbai (prompter). Both father and son feel proud when Joey catches his dad in small errors. Says mother Chellie, "When he's up there he just knows what to do, and he's very mature. At school, it's hard for him to be successful. So we've found a place where he can be successful."

Now that brother Ben is moving toward his own bar mitzvah, Joey has been coaching him for his big day. Ben, 12, considers this a nice turnabout, because he often instructs Joey in commonplace matters like how to throw a football and play computer games. Ben credits his brother with promoting the family's connection to the synagogue: "Sometimes when we don't feel like going, he's urging us to go."

Four years ago, when Rabbi Michael Beals arrived at B'nai Tikvah, he didn't know what to make of Joey. During services, Joey tended to imitate his words and gestures, leading the rabbi to assume the boy was making fun of him. He expressed his displeasure to the Schwartzmans, who explained, "This is not disrespect. He likes you. He wants to be like you." They also gave him a book on autism.

Now Beals is one of Joey's biggest fans. He praises Joey's progress: "In his evolution, I feel I've evolved too. So he's helped me with my education," Beals says. "It's not simply that Beals has learned about autism. Joey's example has taught him to be careful of his own rash assumptions. "Those with handicaps have much to teach us of how we look at things, that things aren't always what they appear to be. One should never count people out."

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