Towards an Inclusive Celebration: B'nei Mitzvah for Children with Special Needs
By Paula Mack Drill, Orangetown Jewish Center, Orangeburg, NY
Every synagogue membership role includes a significant minority of families who have children with special needs; learning differences, emotional or mental illness, developmental or physical disabilities. Often such families quietly choose not to celebrate at the age of bar or bat mitzvah.
By working on a "child by child" basis, we have successfully encouraged numerous families to celebrate with their child in a way that is appropriate for both the child and the family.
The Project’s Impact:
I can best explain the project's impact by sharing a bit of the journey I traveled with a boy named Jordan who became a bar mitzvah on Shabbat morning, November 12.
When Jordan and I began his bar mitzvah lessons, the first thing I did was bring him and his parents into the sanctuary and take a Torah from the ark. I placed it carefully into Jordan’s arms and asked him to repeat after me, “This is MY Torah.” He loved the soft velvet cover and the shiny silver. His mom cried because she had not believed me at first when I told her that Jordan could most certainly become a bar mitzvah in front of the whole congregation on a Shabbat morning. I cried because I believe with all my soul that the Torah belongs to Jordan and every other Jewish person with disabilities and Jordan was proving me to be correct.
On Shabbat Vayeira, Jordan told our community that he was a bar mitzvah. He read a speech, held the Torah and chanted Sh’ma, took an aliyah and leyned four verses of Torah perfectly. The congregation kvelled. The moment of pure pride for me was not actually something Jordan accomplished. When it was time for Jordan to lead the Ashrei at the end of the Torah service, I invited “all of his friends, especially his classmates from the seventh grade” to join him on the bimah. Not one child was missing on that day. Jordan was surrounded by peers. I knew that my talks with the class about how important this day would be for all of us had found ready ears.
The time of celebration is transformative in countless ways. The children see themselves as star of the day and as part of a community.
The parents identify their children as "like others," an invaluable moment of learning as they continue to seek ways to integrate their exceptional children into as broad and meaningful world as possible. Other parents see a model of acceptance, and can decide how it affects them personally or as members of a community.
Our community is not in any way a stumbling block to inclusive celebrations of b'nei mitzvah. Our congregants' energy and joy is palpable to the families and the children. Our congregants are now accustomed to seeing some children take their aliyah with a transliterated b’rakhah, to watching an interpreter sign a service, and to "hearing" a child's d’var Torah read by one of the rabbis or spoken in a dialogue.
The real challenge lies in convincing more families that their children with special needs can find a place and a way at our synagogue to learn and to celebrate milestones. Because each child with special needs is unique, many parents feel that religious education is an unnecessary burden or that we won't truly be able to make an impact. We hope to see a "tipping point" as more children with special needs come onto our bimah.
DIY (Do-it-Yourself) Tips:
Such a program must begin long before the time of preparation for bar or bat mitzvah. The two rabbis of this synagogue partner with our Educational Director who insists that every child must receive a Jewish education in his or her own way. Her dedication means that our Religious School is inclusive and services ranging from shadows to small group tutoring is a natural.
If special needs education is not in your skill set, partner with an educator who can teach you basic tools for teaching to the child. The most important role for the rabbi is setting the tone and attitude of inclusivity. But from a personal point of view, there is nothing as rewarding as standing next to a child whom you tutored, and who learned against all odds to move a yad across lines of Torah, leyning, smiling and knowing that "this Torah is mine!"
Children learn to be inclusive in their synagogue community and learn experientially about others' learning needs and successes along a continuum of possibility.
Paula Mack Drill grew up in the close-knit Jewish community of Portland, Maine. Paula graduated with honors from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania where she developed a broad world-view and a passion for learning. In 1987 she completed a Masters in Social Work from Columbia University as well as a Masters in Jewish Studies from the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Paula's social work experience includes eleven years at the Daughters of Israel Geriatric Center and at the Solomon Schechter School of Essex and Union in New Jersey. During seven summers, she served as Assistant Director at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, NY.
Though Paula found much satisfaction in her social work career, she felt a call to do more. Being present when the first female was ordained at the JTS in 1985, she was profoundly moved, and new possibilities were impressed in her heart. At the age of 39, with the support of her husband Jonathan and their four young children, (Noah, Sarah, Benjamin and Joshua), she returned to JTS for six years of full-time study toward the rabbinate, which she terms "a blessed sabbatical in the middle of my life".
As a rabbi, she still views the world through the eyes of a social worker, but she loves the fact that she can now add what she calls "the God piece" to her interactions with people. She loves to teach and to counsel, and endeavors to be open to the wisdom of others, from the tots in our nursery school, to our teenagers, to our elders.
Paula is on the Advisory Board of Women's League Outlook Magazine to which she is a frequent contributor. She also serves on the boards of Masorti Olami, HUVPAC, and Helping Hands Outreach to the Homeless. She chairs the Faith Leadership Subcommittee of DELTA (Rockland County's initiative to prevent domestic violence).
Paula's passion is to connect each person, in his or her own way, to essential Jewish values, to seek solutions by working together to repair the world, to strive toward holiness, to commit to community, Israel, and to God.