Planning a Special Needs Bar/Bat Mitzvah

Parents, educators, rabbi, and student must work as a team to adjust the ceremony to the student's learning style and capabilities.

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Reprinted with permission from JewishFamily.com.

In 1987, when Joel Hornstein stood before more than 200 congregants, family members, and friends to recite his bar mitzvah Torah portion in English and Hebrew, he had only been able to speak for a few years. No one expected a child with autism, or any other significant disability, to undertake the rigorous training in a foreign language needed to prepare for this significant Jewish rite of passage. Jewish special education was almost nonexistent.

Yet Joel's family wanted to provide him with the opportunity to declare his value and dignity before God and their community, and celebrate his journey out of the solitude of autism.

special needs bar mitzvahIn the years since Joel's bar mitzvah, increasing numbers of Jewish children with disabilities have sought to prepare for similar celebrations. A bar or bat mitzvah is a milestone in a person's development as a Jew. A public celebration of reaching the age of Jewish majority, it indicates the acquisition of a certain amount of Jewish knowledge as well as interest in ongoing participation in Jewish life.

People with severe disabilities may not have acquired formal learning at a level comparable to those without disabilities, nor may they have the ability to make an ongoing commitment to education. However, they do recognize their emotional and psychic ties to the Jewish people and wish to participate in the community to the best of their ability.

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.

Family members of people with disabilities may hesitate to broach the subject for fear of rejection, or they may even be unaware of the possibilities that could be open to their loved one. Sometimes, however, people with disabilities are welcomed, and the discussion centers on how to make such an event happen.

Cooperation and Careful Planning Are Critical

Planning is the key to the success of any bar or bat mitzvah ceremony; accommodating a person with disabilities requires preparation well beyond the usual. Patience, energy, commitment, and cooperation among parents, the rabbi, cantor, and religious school teacher, and whenever possible, the person with disabilities is essential. They should consider themselves a team with one goal in mind: the development of a beautiful and meaningful ceremony that recognizes the person as a disability as a member of the Jewish community and is an affirmation of Jewish life that transcends all the usual boundaries.

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Becca Hornstein

Becca Hornstein is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Council for Jews with Special Needs, Inc. in Phoenix, Arizona.