I’ve been getting some feedback on my columns, both positive and negative (one reader called a column “completely vapid”; I wouldn’t have minded “vapid,” but “completely”?!?). I also discovered that there are those who like to give feedback face-to-face in shul on Shabbat morning. Well, if that describes you, please wait until next week because this Shabbat my wife and I will be celebrating the bar mitzvah of our twin great nephews, Jamie and Daniel Chaikelson, at Congregation Ramath Orah on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Now, even a twin bar mitzvah, while personally special to family and close friends, is usually nothing to write a column about. It’s like inviting friends over to see your vacation slides. (Translation for my younger readers — it’s like posting all your vacation photos on Facebook.) But this bar mitzvah truly is special because the twins are special. Jamie is autistic and Daniel has a nonverbal learning disability. And their celebration was carefully and thoughtfully designed to be meaningful for both of them as well as for their parents and older brother.
But it wasn’t simple. While their rabbi, Rabbi Moshe Grussgott of Ramath Orah, was extremely open to working with the family to tailor the two days to the participants’ needs, Ramath Orah, a relatively small Orthodox synagogue, does not have the resources to develop an expertise in religious programming for special-needs children. But Congregation Rodeph Shalom, a large Reform congregation about a mile downtown, does offer a special-needs worship service called Shireinu (Our Songs). Shireinu, which is led by Rodeph Sholom’s associate rabbi, Ben Spratt, provides families and children, including Jamie and Daniel, with the opportunity to worship on certain holidays in an accessible, interactive, and sensitive environment.
So, in a wonderfully sweet example of interdenominational friendship, understanding, and concern, Rabbi Spratt, working with Rabbi Grussgott, helped my niece Amanda and her husband Steven adapt the Shireinu program for the boys’ bar mitzvah in an Orthodox setting. On Shabbat there will be a regular service, with Daniel chanting the maftir and haftarah, and on Sunday there will be a unique Rosh Chodesh service in which both Jamie and Daniel will participate, in the presence of family, friends, and their classmates, followed by a reception for all.
This is not, of course, the first special needs bar/bat mitzvah program (though some parents who would like to have such a program for their special-needs children are so overwhelmed by the prospect of organizing one that this rite of passage passes without celebration). And there are Orthodox shuls, including Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck, that have wonderful Shabbat and yom tov programming for special-needs children.
But it still is far from the norm, and opportunities for Jewish engagement and education for special-needs students remain limited.
Jamie and Daniel go to Matan, a one-day-a week program at a Conservative synagogue, Ansche Chesed on the Upper West Side, that allows students to engage in hands-on multisensory Jewish education using a curriculum that includes Bible stories, Jewish values, Jewish holidays, Shabbat, and Hebrew. The program builds on social skills and enables the children to feel proud of their Jewish identity.
But Amanda and Steven would love to have their boys obtain a full Jewish day-school-type education, based on programming that also would meet their sons’ special learning and social needs. Unfortunately, considering the already overtaxed (in all meanings of that word) nature of day schools, that is still an unobtainable dream. While inclusion is becoming more standard in the Orthodox community, the end of the journey still is far off.
And this true not only with respect to people who might not feel welcome in Orthodox venues or with whom the mainstream Orthodox community feels uncomfortable. It also true about unwelcome and uncomfortable ideas. To that end, a new organization, PORAT (People for Orthodox Renaissance and Torah, and also the Hebrew word for “fruitful”) — who but Rabbi Yitz Greenberg could come up with an acronym like that? — has made both sides of inclusion an important part of its mission.
PORAT is “committed to a tolerant and inclusive Modern Orthodox community” and seeks to create a safe space to “engage diverse perspectives on issues relating to religious Zionism, gender equality, conversion to Judaism, agunah, the synthesis of secular culture and Jewish tradition, rabbinic authority, spirituality, relations with other denominations and faiths, and the place of gay and lesbian individuals within our community” — many of the hot button issues that bedevil the Modern Orthodox community today.
In other words, PORAT’s goal is to incorporate and represent the diversity of people and ideas within the Orthodox community. Premised on the recognition that a deep commitment to halachah and Torah values does not always imply a single, “correct” viewpoint (just ask Hillel and Shammai), it will advocate for open dialogue on issues around which controversy rages, with a goal of deepening halachic observance and learning.
PORAT is offering its inaugural program on “Modern Orthodoxy in the 21st Century: What Should it Look Like & How Do We Get There?” next Sunday, May 15, at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The focus of the program, set to begin at 7 p.m., will be a panel discussion on that topic by Ms. Blu Greenberg, Rabbi Benny Lau, Ms. Ann Pava, and Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz. The moderator will be Dr. Steven Bayme, a founder of PORAT and one of its chief spokespeople. I hope to be there and to learn more about inclusion of ideas, just as I am sure I will learn more about the inclusion of people at Jamie and Daniel’s bar mitzvah.
Oh, and feel free to give me your feedback next Shabbat. Just please don’t call me completely anything.
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular contributor who has lived in Teaneck for more than 30 years, is a frequent writer of essays for Jewish publications when he is not practicing law in Manhattan.