I love officiating at Bar and Bat Mitzvah services. Watching young one grow up – sometimes during the process of studying Torah, sometimes right before our eyes as they chant Torah on the bimah – is a moment of kedusha (holiness). Kal v’chomer (“how much the moreso”) when the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a child with special learning needs. Over the years, we have celebrated Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremonies with children with autism, ADHD, auditory processing problems, OCD, motor and munipulation issues, dyslexia, and a whole alphabet of other challenges. Each service was unique. Most were tear-jerkers. All were REAL and fully within shalshelet hakabalah, the unbroken chain of transmission of Torah from generation to generation.
Though we kvell (praise) especially joyfully at these services – “look at how much this or that child has been able to do” – I often wonder if it is we who miss the point. Of course the child became a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, because Torah beckons him/her, like every other kid, to take his/her place with in the chain of transmission. It is always an honor to help figure out how to make this happen.
I recently read an article about involving children in the religious experience by Rabbi Joanne Yocheved Heiligman, the parent of a child with autism spectrum disorders. Rabbi Heiligman writes:
With all the energy that it takes to help our children succeed in their everyday school settings, sometimes the thought of enduring a similar struggle for their religious lives can seem so daunting that we postpone their religious education and/or participation long past the time we would provide it to a typical child. I have the dual perspective of being the parent of children with autism spectrum disorders as well as being a rabbi. I’d like to share some of what I have learned, from both sides, about integrating our children into faith communities.
Rabbi Heiligman’s article is an important part of this ongoing conversation. I encourage you to read it! Read more.