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Jewish Journal

After the special needs b’nai mitzvah: Only a beginning

by Michelle K. Wolf

October 13, 2012 | 11:49 pm

It’s really wonderful that more kids with special needs, including those who aren’t verbal, are now able to have a bar or bat mitzvah, but shouldn’t that simcha be viewed as a beginning of engagement with the Jewish community and not the end?

The first special needs bat mitzvah I attended was for a sister of a friend I had made at camp in high school, and the bat mitzvah was a very small affair, held in a chapel of a large Westside synagogue. As I recall, the expectations of the sister (who in retrospect probably had mild intellectual disabilities), were very low, and there was a sense that although the event was certainly worth celebrating, the idea of a Jewish kid who wasn’t college-bound was a big shanda (disgrace).

Since then, I’ve attended many special needs B’nai Mitzvot, some large-scale events with live bands playing at the after-party, and others, purposely kept small to minimize the noise and sensory overload for the Bar Mitzvah boy on the autism spectrum.  The kids usually rise to the occasion, and it isn’t unusual for the parental speeches to get the tear ducts flowing. As the four-page feature spread titled, “Autistic boy’s bar mitzvah is a milestone of faith, hard work” in the Arizona Republic documented, long-time family members often find it “amazing” that the teens with special needs are able to lead the congregation in prayer.

Our son, Danny who is now 17, had his bar mitzvah a month after turning 14, on a crisp Hanukkah Rosh Chodesh morning at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, and although he has very limited verbal abilities, he was able with verbal cuing, to say an aliyah, the traditional blessings before and after the Torah reading, have a typical friend read some of his thoughts on being Jewish, and also used his voice output device for the thank-you portion of the service.

But it can’t just end there. And in Los Angeles, we are very fortunate to have a wide array of post-B’nai Mitzvah programs for our teens and young adults.

Danny waits all year for summer time which means a month away at Camp Ramah California where he is part of their Tikvah program with a full-time aide, During the school year, he participates in a Confirmation Class at Vista Del Mar, part of their Nes Gadol Jewish education program for kids with autism and other developmental disabilities.  He also goes to OurSpace social and recreational programs through Valley Beth Shalom and squeezes in a week or two at Etta Israel’s high-spirited day camp program. Whew!

This past week, Danny rocked the night away at a very hip Erev Simchat Torah celebration at IKAR; he was very disappointed to hear that his Mom’s feet were worn out before the very last hakafot (round of dancing).  And then this Shabbat morning, he was asked to do the first aliyah of the first Parasha of the new Jewish year, Bereshit. He stood up in front of the congregation, taller and more confident than during his Bar Mitzvah and slowly did his best to pronounce each word of the blessings. It was a great beginning.

PS If you want to hear first-hand about our recent Special Needs Study Mission to Israel sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles,and how you can get invovled in next steps, rsvp at www.jewishla.org/special-needs-panel to attend a November 5th presentation.

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