It was a beautiful Shabbat morning on the west coast of Florida, the day Chris K. made his way to the bima to celebrate becoming a Bar Mitzvah. The synagogue was filled to capacity. When the cantor called Chris to the Torah to make the blessing before the reading, the Oooooo’s and Ahhhhh’s, along with sniffles and sobs could be heard throughout the sanctuary. Why all the emotion? Chris K, a young visually impaired teen was about to become the first blind student to read Hebrew braille as the first Bar Mitzvah in Florida’s history.
Two years earlier Florida’s east coast had a similar reason to kvell. Shari B., a young teen with quadriplegia, who was paralyzed from the neck down and breathing with the aid of a ventilator, came forward to the Torah and, from her motorized wheelchair, whispered the words of her parsha, becoming Florida’s first girl with a severe disability to be called to the Torah as a Bat Mitzvah. As happened in Chris K.’s synagogue, the congregation that experienced Shari’s simcha was overcome with emotion and amazement.
In my previous life, before I became a rabbi I worked with children with special needs. I also created an educational puppet program called Kids on the Block that addressed the same issue. When I became a rabbi (21 years ago) my experiences with disabled children led me to create specialized learning programs so that children with diverse mental and physical abilities could have the opportunity to experience this very important Jewish rite of passage. That’s how I came to teach Chris and Shari and officiate for their B’nei Mitzvah ceremonies.
Yet it’s not always easy, as many parents of special needs children can attest. In fact, one parent, Becca Hornstein, shares her thoughts virtually via My Jewish Learning: “Misconceptions, even prejudices, about people with disabilities linger. Some people question whether a child with a severe disability can and should have a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony. They may doubt that such a person can sustain the desire to become a bar or bat mitzvah . They may harbor rigid ideas of what the ritual entails, and may not be willing to adapt the ceremony to the needs and abilities of the person. They may not know that other people with comparable disabilities have had similar celebrations.”
Two programs, Masorti Adraba in Israel and Gateways, located in Newton, Massachusetts, feature teaching materials and methods geared to the learning needs of the student with special needs.
The professionals at Gateways describe their mission as providing “high quality special education services, expertise and support to enable students with diverse learning needs to succeed in Jewish educational settings and participate meaningfully in Jewish life.” These services include extensive adaptive materials that allow special needs teens to have a successful Bar or Bat Mitzvah experience.
Thanks to the unique program operated by the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel, Masorti’s Adraba, offers specialized Jewish education and courses to prepare young Israelis with cognitive or physical disabilities to become Bar or Bat Mitzvah. The Masorti program notes that “Children with disabilities are often marginalized in Israel, especially in traditionally religious communities.” Founded in 1995 the Masorti program boasts “an unwavering commitment to creating an Israel which is inclusive of all.”
It is within the context of inclusion that the destination Bar or Bat Mitzvah experience in Rhodes, Greece came about – a program especially designed with the needs of special students in mind. In recent years we’ve called to the Torah students on the autism spectrum, students with hearing impairments and a 19 year old young woman with Down Syndrome who read the Sh’ma directly from the Torah scroll.
For many families the large synagogue with hundreds of congregants can be daunting for a special needs child, while the intimate surroundings of our synagogue in the mountains of southern Italy, or the family style warmth of the gorgeously ornate synagogue on the island of Rhodes offer ideal settings for a small but meaningful family simcha. Couple this with specially arranged accessible tours and a welcoming fun-filled resort and families with children with disabilities can enjoy all that a destination ceremony and family vacation have to offer.
It wasn’t long ago when our Calabrian synagogue opened our destination Bar Mitzvah program and our hearts to welcome students with disabilities to the bima. We knew we were on the right track when one teen with autism concluded his reading of the transliterated Torah verse by raising his arms in victory and shouting, to the claps and cheers of our congregation, “I’m a Bar Mitzvah!”