Eight months ago, a group of parents were sure that their children would not celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah. Even the most secular of Israelis celebrate this traditional rite of passage, even if not religiously. The synagogue is nevertheless often the center of this life-cycle event, at least for boys.
The children of this group of parents have severe autism. They do not speak. It is difficult for them to communicate or comprehend. Traditionally, viewed as not sound of mind, such children are not called up to the Torah to mark this milestone.
Twenty years ago, based on a contemporary understanding of autism and ground-breaking religious responsa, the Masorti movement in Israel initiated a project for children with varying disabilities, preparing them for their bar/bat mitzvah.
Within a few years, this pioneering program was being rolled out in tens of special education schools around the country, bringing new hope to children with disabilities and their families. Based on the verse in Proverbs, “Educate the child according to his way,” the Masorti program has been bringing joy and celebration to thousands of children whose families were certain that their child would never have his or her special day.
I have attended such bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies and the preparatory classes. Our dedicated teachers not only train the children for the religious ceremony, but also provide them with a Jewish education, which is generally not available in their schools. Our teachers have developed programs and aids that are shared with Jewish special educators around the world.
Last Monday, I was honored to host four wonderful children for the rehearsal of their bar mitzvah ceremony. Seeing the excitement on their faces as they entered the synagogue enthused me ahead of leading my first such ceremony. These kids might not be able to speak, but they were able to express themselves and participate in the service.
The next day, I received some news that literally drew the breath out of my lungs. Someone had complained to the mayor about our non-Orthodox service, saying it would prevent Orthodox classmates of the celebrants from attending the ceremony. The mayor decided to forbid the school from coming to our synagogue during school time, essentially nixing the ceremony.
One mother has been crying since the mayor cancelled the ceremony. “Why Mr. Mayor?” asked this mother, in a Facebook post. “Why two days before the ceremony? … For six months the children have been preparing… They managed to connect in an amazing way to the teachers from the Masorti movement.”
“To you, my child, how can I say sorry for not managing to win this struggle for you?”
In Israel, there is no freedom of religion for Jews: it’s either the Orthodox way or no way. Any official, state-run Jewish institution is Orthodox. There is an unholy alliance of politics and religion in Israel that has led many Jews to reject Judaism outright.
Masorti is here for those 80 percent of Jews in Israel who are not religious, many of whom respect and care for our age-old traditions. The Orthodox establishment will do anything to prevent any liberal stream of Judaism from spreading a more inclusive brand of Judaism — even if that means nixing a bar/bat mitzvah ceremony for children with autism.
The dreams of these children and their parents have been ripped to shreds by the intransigence of a minority that wields enormous political clout. The mayor’s message to my congregation seems to be that our Judaism is one that is dangerous to children. This is unacceptable, especially when it is the Orthodox establishment that prevents children with disabilities from celebrating a bar/bat mitzvah.
I have requested a meeting with the mayor in order to find a way to hold the ceremony for these children. I hope that he agrees to meet with us and find a compromise that will preserve the dignity of the children and their families.
The book of Genesis tells us that humankind was created in the image of God. No chemical imbalance, even when it causes the most severe disabilities, can ever extinguish the Divine spark inside a human being.