Tag: Special Needs

Coping with an Autistic Brother: A Teenager’s Take

Siblings of People with Special Needs: Next Steps in Disability Awareness Outreach

Or Ami spends significant time and energy embracing and supporting families with children with special needs. We are proactively welcoming, because our tradition teaches us that we all were created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image.

Taking our lead from the Union for Reform Judaism’s Disability Awareness initiatives, we have come to understand that “with special needs children, there are two values being played out, simultaneously. Working with one child, Brandon Kaplan, for instance, we saw that Brandon is a kid like any other kid created in the image of God, worthy of love. But Brandon is also a special kid and there is an honor and joy to the congregation that he participates to the fullness of his abilities. So he’s normal and special, but here’s the secret: so is every other kid.”

Often though we focus on the needs of the person with special needs, or on the struggles of being his/her parent. We welcome special needs children into our education programs and kvell as they become B’nai Mitzvah. Our Or Ami Center for Jewish Parenting sponsors a support group for people with special needs.

Now comes the New York Times reporting on NPR’s poignant account of the experiences of the sister of a boy with autism. The article, and story, Coping with an Autistic Brother: A Teenager’s Take, is powerful listening. It reminds us that the constellation of those touched by disabilities is far wider than we often consider. It goads us to explore more deeply how we reach out – really reach out – to all those affected.

The New York Times Well blog reviews the story:

The piece focuses on 15-year-old Marissa Skillings, whose 11-year-old brother Andrew has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. Marissa talks about the challenges of living with a brother on the autism spectrum.

He talks nonstop; talking and talking and talking. He’ll tell anybody information about any animal whether they want to hear it or not. People can tell Andrew has a disability….When he gets nervous he moves his hands back and forth.

Having a brother with autism takes a toll on Marissa’s relationship with her parents. Her brother often interrupts and makes it difficult for her to receive attention. Sometimes she stays out as late as her curfew allows so she can avoid time at home.

I come home and deal with it when I have to, and when I don’t have to deal with it, I make sure I don’t.

She and her brother tell the story of the time a neighborhood boy picked on Andrew. She chased the bully down the street, cornered the boy and slapped him. I don’t hate my brother. I’d kill for him. But I could kill him too.

Read/hear the NPR story (and see pictures of Marissa and Andrew) here.

I was astounded after listening to this story. With all the good work we do, here is another important area in our outreach to families of people with special needs that we haven’t really focused on yet. Although our Jewish tradition teaches “lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor – it is not up to us to complete the task,” we do need to explore each challenge as we become aware of it. So this story has led me to ponder three questions (perhaps you can help me learn and respond):

  1. What would congregational support of the siblings of people with special needs look like?
  2. Do any siblings have any suggestions for us?
  3. Are any synagogues doing this already?

#2: The Candle of Confusion………………. (Over How Much to Celebrate Chanukah)

Chanukah Candle #2. Shtayeem, dos, du, shay-nee, ʼiṯnān (Arabic), dua (Indonesian), ʻe-lua (Hawaiian, for the new President-elect), twai (Gothic), yerkou (Armenian), two. Happy Second Night of Chanukah.

Blog Tzedakah:
The five of you who left comments yesterday ensured that collectively, we donated $15 of my money to the Adopt a Child Abuse Caseworker (ACAC) program that helps foster children. Read more about that program here. If you want, donate yourself there.

Now leave a comment (below) today and I make a tzedakah donation to the Brandon Kaplan Special Needs program, which ensures that kids with special needs and their families receive the support they need within the Jewish community. Learn more about the program here and here. If you want, donate yourself there. Remember, though, for every comment made today, I’ll make a tzedakah donation to help special needs kids seeking a brighter future. So just make a comment below.

Chanukah Blog Thots:

My colleague Rabbi H. Rafael Goldstein, Spiritual Life Coach, wrote words that speaks to everyone who struggles to find direction celebrating Chanukah during the Christmas season. His conclusions are wonderful.

This time of year is one of major conflict for me. I don’t like having to defend Jewish tradition. I don’t like having to say that Hanukkah is not a big deal holiday and that we have to resist the temptation of our society’s to turn it into the Jewish American Christmas. This has always been my least favorite time of the year. I’m on the defensive no matter what I say. If I say it’s ok to celebrate the secular festival of American consumerism, I am putting down Christmas. If I say that it’s not very Jewish to celebrate the season with all the gifts and decorations of Christmas, I’m taking away all the fun of the party.

But I heard a story a while ago that I find really useful for framing my discomfort and the resolution of it. It took a couple of years to come to terms with the story. Here’s how it goes:

This old guy is about to die. He is very uncomfortable about his impending death, worried about what will happen to the Jewish people. He goes to his rabbi. He complains bitterly of his worry and his need to hang on to life until or unless he can see that the future of the Jewish people is secure. In his magical wisdom, the rabbi brings him to the eighth year of the second Christian millennium, to the last month, and here he sees the Jewish people making a huge deal out of Hanukkah, an admittedly minor, insignificant holiday. He sees children getting gifts every day, celebrating with great joy this very minor holiday. He hears incredibly insipid songs dedicated to spinning tops and potato pancakes, can’t figure out their meaning, but at least he recognizes the happiness and warmth of the songs. Finally, after taking in this spectacle, he says to the rabbi, “If this is how they celebrate such a little holiday like Hanukkah, I can rest assured. Think how they must be observing the important holidays, like Sukkot and Shavuot, or even Shabbat!”

Many other rabbis who tell this story go on to lament what they see as the irony of this story – that we have lost sight of our authentic Jewish holidays and have focused a lot on a minor holiday. I differ with them here, and I base that difference on the very story of Hanukkah. Hanukkah celebrates a military victory that has little or no spiritual or religious value. The historical accounts of Hanukkah do not include the story with the cruse of oil lasting for 8 days. That story was attached to it much later, in Talmudic times, around 400 years after the battle was won but the war was lost. In other words, our ancestors saw miracles in the story in which G!d was not at all Self-evident, attributing the military victory to G!d. They then further added G!d into the Hanukkah story, making it a spiritual event, with the device of the “miracle” of the oil.

G!d doesn’t appear in burning bushes, in splitting seas or earthquakes, thunder or lightning in the Hanukkah story. In fact, G!d isn’t even mentioned much. The Maccabees are praised for their bravery in winning the battle, and there is a sense of awe attached to the legend of the oil, but I don’t remember anyone saying it was G!d’s direct hand that kept the oil burning for the 8 days, just a very strange experience, a miracle. That G!d doesn’t appear in the story, doesn’t mean that G!d is not there, just that it’s our job to understand that G!d can be in the little things, in the unbelievable victory of the small over the mighty, in legends of rededication that we tell ourselves in order to sense the closeness of G!d in the less than spectacular. The rabbis turned to the legend of the oil when memory of the military victory was fading, when they were oppressed, lost, down and out, and needed to find G!d, to find miracles, to find holiness in what they had left.

That’s a Hanukkah lesson I am comfortable with: that G!d is present to us, in the miracles of our daily lives, if we see G!d in the smaller, non-spectacular stories of our own lives and our times. Recognizing when we need to turn to G!d, and finding the Holy One right there with us, as we struggle with our own battles and our own losses. Hanukkah is a way of rededicating ourselves to seeing the light of G!d where G!d’s Presence may be most needed, most welcome, most missed. Hanukkah is a reminder that G!d’s light in our own lives is the miracle, and it lasts way more than 8 days!

So, in thinking about it, I’m not all that disturbed by that which other rabbis might find lamentable – that in our society we have elevated a minor holiday into major proportions. It means we’re still a dynamic religion, still growing, developing and changing. It means that the Judaism we celebrate today continues to have creative energy. May we learn, as our ancestors did, to infuse that creative energy with G!d’s Holy Presence, making more obvious to us the miracles of G!d in our own lives each and every day. May the candles we light this Hanukkah remind us that the light from G!d will never diminish, and may we enjoy the glow way after Hanukkah is over.

Chanukah Resources: Concerned about the non-historical origin of the eight days of oil story? Read here. Need Chanukah resources: songsheets, candle blessing instructions, a copy of the story? Go here.

Happy Chanukah! (Check back tomorrow to discover which is the correct way to spell the holiday’s name: Chanukah, Hanukkah, Hanuka, Hanukka or…)

Standing Tall: Israelis Help Paralyzed People Walk Again

A new Israeli invention is helping paralyzed people walk again.

Something of a mix between the exoskeleton of a crustacean and the suit worn by comic hero Iron Man, the device, called ReWalk, helps paraplegics—people paralyzed below the waist—to stand, walk and climb stairs.

One of these new ReWalk users is former Israeli paratrooper Radi Kaiof, who was injured in 1988 while serving in the Israel Defense Forces. “I never dreamed I would walk again,” Kaiof told Reuters. “After I was wounded, I forgot what it’s like. Only when standing up can I feel how tall I really am and speak to people eye to eye, not from below.”

ReWalk was invented by engineer Amit Goffer, founder of Argo Medical Technologies, a small Israeli high-tech company. “It raises people out of their wheelchair and lets them stand up straight,” Goffer said of his contraption. “It’s not just about health, it’s also about dignity.”

When Goffer speaks about dignity, he understands all too well. He was paralyzed in an accident in 1997 but he cannot use his own invention because he does not have full function of his arms.

ReWalk, which requires crutches to help with balance, consists of motorized leg supports, body sensors and a backpack containing a computerized control box and rechargeable batteries. The user picks a setting with a remote control wrist band—stand, sit, walk, descend or climb—and then leans forward, activating the body sensors and setting the robotic legs in motion.

The ReWalk is now in clinical trials in Tel Aviv’s Sheba Medical Centre, and Goffer said it will soon be used in trials at the Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute in Pennsylvania. Slated for commercial sale in 2010, ReWalk will cost as much as the more sophisticated wheelchairs on the market, which sell for about $20,000, the company said.

Click here to learn more about the ReWalk system.

Support Team Sophie: For Universally Accessible Playgrounds

Amazing people do amazing things to transform themselves and the world. My congregants Jeff and Kellie Singer support Shane’s Inspiration, an organization which works to create Universally Accessible Playgrounds and programs that integrate children of all abilities socially, physically and emotionally, fostering acceptance, friendship and understanding. They helped vision Calabasas’ Brandon’s Village.

Jeff and Kellie invite people to hear their story. Our Brandon Kaplan Special Needs Program urges us to support their Team Sophie in the Shane’s Inspiration walk. Read on:

As many of you know, our daughter Sophie was diagnosed with Optic Nerve Hypoplasia when she was 5 months old. It is a very rare disorder which is the leading cause of blindness and visual impairment in children. We did not know whether she would be able to see, walk, or talk and so many of the other normal things that we all take for granted each day. Sophie has spent the past 8 years going to physical, occupational and speech therapy up to five days per week. She has worked so hard and achieved so much. She has inspired everyone in our family to reach higher than we thought we could, to work harder than we thought possible and be more compassionate than we knew how to be. Sophie is now in third grade; she attends Hebrew school, spent a week this past summer at sleep away camp, does gymnastics, karate, plays baseball and played in her first soccer game this weekend. We are so proud of Sophie and all of her accomplishments. Shane’s Inspiration came into our lives almost 8 years ago and has given my family so many gifts; the gift of sharing, acceptance and love. The gift of embracing a world without bias and barriers. And most importantly, for Sophie, the gift of laughter and the joy of play. Shane’s Inspiration makes that lesson possible for all children by building “Integrated Playgrounds”. Playgrounds that your children can enjoy alongside a child that may not be able to put themselves on a swing or walk across a play bridge, but can roll with a wheelchair alone or with the aid of their parent or another child and be able to laugh and enjoy a day in the park. The vision of Shane’s Inspiration is to eliminate bias against children with disabilities. The mission of Shane’s Inspiration is to create Universally Accessible Playgrounds and programs that integrate children of all abilities socially, physically and emotionally, fostering acceptance, friendship and understanding. Over the years, we have been so honored to have so many friends join Team Sophie at the annual Walk & Roll. We would like to invite you to join us on Sunday, September 28th at 7:30 AM at Griffith Park for the 11th Annual Shane’s Inspiration Walk & Roll. We are proud to say that Team Sophie has been the top fundraising team for the past 7 years raising more than $100,000. We have set a goal to raise $25,000 in 2008. We appreciate any donation that you can make. We have set up a Team Sophie Fundraising website . All donations are secure and sent directly to Shane’s Inspiration by Firstgiving, who will email you a printable record of your donation. Or if you prefer to mail a check, just send the check payable to Shane’s Inspiration to 15213 Burbank Boulevard, Van Nuys, CA 91411, and acknowledge TEAM SOPHIE. Contact Jeff with questions.

Structured Caring: Reaching Out to Families with Children with Special Needs

When loving a child with special needs, the pressure and the work to meet his/her needs are constant. Crises come regularly; exhaustion is a constant companion. It is a unique struggle. That’s why at Or Ami, our Henaynu Caring Community Committee, in partnership with our Brandon Kaplan Special Needs Program, has found a unique way of reaching out. We have created a special outreach chairperson who reaches out regularly, multiple times over the course of a year, to each family with a child with special needs.

Once a year the families receive a letter (see below). Then the contacts begin. Caring is heart-felt, but the pressures of life keep us from regularly participating in random acts of kindness. That is why we have created a structure, led by a caring individual, to deepen our support and outreach.

This year’s letter:

Dear NAME:
I am writing on the request of Rabbi Paul Kipnes and our Henaynu Caring Community Committee. I have been asked to co-chair the Henaynu Caring Community Sub-Committee to help serve the needs of the congregants who have children with special needs. As the mother of two special needs children, I understand the daily struggles and joys of parenting our unique children. I also know that, at times, it can seem like no one else “gets it” — the particular sorrows of seeing our son’s or daughter’s differences, the struggle with the school system, or the isolation that our families experience. We all crave community, a place where we can share our extraordinary lives and be understood. Our Rabbi, our Cantor and the members of Congregation Or Ami want to provide you that community. We want you to know that you can reach out to Rabbi Kipnes and to the Henaynu Caring Community Committee for support. Perhaps the stresses that you experience become part of your routine, but there may be times that you feel you need extra care and prayers from others. Please know that we are here for you. I will be calling you sometime within the next couple of months to check in with you. In the meantime, you can reach me at PHONE NUMBER or [email protected]. L’Shalom, Diane Smith

20 Year Old Matthew Leads Service Celebrating Exceptional Children

Sometimes you get a letter that lets you know the community is doing it right. This from Matthew’s mom:

March 2008 Dear Rabbi Paul, Thank you so much for including Matthew in the amazing Shabbat service celebrating people with special needs. It was so gratifying on several levels As you know, Matthew is 20-years- old and has Fragile X Syndrome. Part of what I was looking for in joining Congregation Or Ami was providing a community for supporting Matthew as he grows into adulthood and moves beyond the ready-made community of school. I knew that COA had a reputation of welcoming families with special needs children. And that has turned out to be so. When you have a child with disabilities, you frequently feel like an outsider, so to feel a part of is a wonderful feeling. So when you asked Matthew to participate in the Special Needs service, I was thrilled for the opportunity. I was even more thrilled when Matthew responded to your request, saying “ I would be honored.” Nervous though he was, he rose to the occasion and sang the blessings beautifully, with the flair of his personality shining through. I was so touched by your attention to him, allowing him to be himself, and by the presence of Brandon and Michael Kaplan on the bimah with him. Matthew, like the rest of us, feels a sense of purpose when he has an important role to play, rather than being an observer, as our special needs children often are. It is my fervent hope that Matthew will continue to play a part at COA and that his love of Judaism will grow. Thank you for helping us to find our home. Shalom, Diane Smith Matthew Simon’s proud mom

Honoring Michael and Dina Kaplan at Or Ami’s Gala

Congregation Or Ami honored Michael and Dina Kaplan, synagogue and community leaders, at our Gala on March 1,2008. I spoke these words to them:

Michael and Dina Kaplan individually and as a team have shown us the magic of Judaism. With complimentary sets of skills, they have shined the bright light of hope and possibility into the darkened, and often overwhelming, lives of families whose children struggle with exceptional needs. In the process, they show countless parents, grandparents, relatives, teachers and temples, that children with special needs are exceptional kids, who will inspire us all to hope and dream.
Dina Kaplan Watching Dina move through life, as the very capable lawyer that she is, special needs children’s advocate, creator of the K.E.N. Project, and as mother of Brandon, that exceptional kid who has captured the hearts of our whole congregation, is to see competence, grace and tenacity in action. When faced with situations which would cause most of us to dissolve into tears and become incapacitated by the sheer overwhelming needs before us, you Dina have crafted meaningful solutions which create amazing possibilities for countless kids and families. In the process, you have taught us all – recalcitrant school systems, disbelieving relatives, underprepared teachers, and cautious synagogues – to become our better selves, to open ourselves up to the wonders that each child – able bodied or exceptional – brings into God’s world.
Meandering around Brandon’s Village, we see an amazing lack of difference, as all kinds of children and families find normalcy in the common experience of a day at the park. Walking into Or Ami’s Support Group for Parents of Kids with Special Needs which you facilitate, we see relief spread over the faces of parents who suddenly see possibility through the stress. Grab a siddur and sit in a Bar/Bat Mitzvah service for a child with special needs – whether Brandon’s or the many other children who have chanted Torah at Or Ami – thanks, Diane – and we see what you Dina have been advocating all along: that two values are being played out, simultaneously. That each child is a kid like any other kid created in the image of God, worthy of love. And that as special kids, each child brings an honor and joy our community as he participates to the fullness of his abilities.
Dina, that is why we honor you tonight. For bringing the light of possibility into our community and our lives. May generations of exceptional kids and their families soar ever higher because of the amazing wings you have helped them fashion for themselves.
Michael Kaplan
When it became known that Michael Kaplan was joining Congregation Or Ami, I began receiving receive anonymous messages cautioning me about what was in store. They warned me that Michael takes pleasure in terrorizing and teasing young rabbis. They said it would begin slowly, subtly.
First Michael would sit in the front row at services, reciting the prayers with an old world Ashkenazi accent, just loudly enough to break the rabbi’s concentration, even causing me to lose my place or – horror – crack a smile during the Kaddish. They were right; it happened. Then he would take over Chanukah, insisting that we hear his collection of Yiddish Christmas Carols. That too occurred, but thankfully I am spared having to listen to those anymore. Then came the bevy of blackberry text messages, each arriving at a purposely timed, most inopportune moments, offering hysterically inappropriate yet uniquely insightful comments on the discussion at hand.
Finally, in a coup de craziness, he slowly, subtly positioned himself, first joining the board, then working his way up until, elected president, he could claim the prize he had his eye on all along – those precious moments at Yom Kippur, when the president gets to greet the whole congregation. For Michael, his four minutes became fourteen, until, inserting himself into the role of replacement rabbi, he did the unimaginable: he gave a sermonette which, beautifully crafted and masterfully delivered, caused us all to dissolve into tears. I was consumed with worry. “He wants my job,” I said to myself on that Yom Kippur, adding new sinful thoughts to my recently cleansed soul. “This president is after my job.”
Michael Kaplan sees himself as an evangelical, spreading the good word about Or Ami’s special brand of joyous Judaism. Whether at Jerry’s Deli, where Michael holds court to publicizes our excellent Henaynu caring community, or at community functions – Jewish and not so Jewish – where Michael publically pronounces that his shul is the coolest, he is one of Or Ami’s biggest boosters. I regularly receive Michael’s text messages from around the country, in which he shares with me his Shabbat services experiences at Temple Beth Beyond-the-Horizon. Each text ends with the same line: they cannot hold a candle to what we do here at Or Ami. I no longer fear Michael wants my job, because I know that Michael sees his job as creating the room and support for this rabbi – and this congregation – to dream big and imaginatively. And Or Ami has flourished under his leadership.
When not harassing this rabbi, Michael can be found behind the lens of his camera. Whether photographing animals mating at the zoo, people making memorable moments around the community, or children soaking in Jewish spirituality at our shul, Michael is capturing for eternity, those special moments which make life spectacular.
Of course, Michael’s transformational efforts go beyond the walls of Or Ami. With Dina, with their son Brandon and their wonderful families, Michael has ensured that every person he comes in contact with has her needs addressed, because Michael recognizes that each person, created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, is unique and special. He has created safe communities where people with special needs can turn for support and spirituality. And he promotes efforts which urge us to reach outward to transform our community and our world.
Michael, tonight we honor you, for the way you have touched the lives of so many with your warmth, your stories, and your smile. Under your influence, may Or Ami continue to flourish as we all bring goodness into our world. Mazel Tov!

Tracing Business Acumen to Dyslexia

As a follow up to a recent post on the America’s Top Model who has Asperger’s Syndrome, I offer this article, also from the New York Times (12/6/07) on Tracing Business Acumen to Dyslexia. The author explains that: A study concluded that dyslexics were more likely than nondyslexics to excel in oral communication and problem solving and to own two or more businesses.

Why does the Jewish community in general, and Or Ami in particular, need to be welcoming to Jews with special needs? Because, as in the case of dyslexics, they have much to offer, and much to gain, from this community.

The journalist notes: “We found that dyslexics who succeed had overcome an awful lot in their lives by developing compensatory skills,” Professor Logan said in an interview. “If you tell your friends and acquaintances that you plan to start a business, you’ll hear over and over, ‘It won’t work. It can’t be done.’ But dyslexics are extraordinarily creative about maneuvering their way around problems.” This kind of creativity can only help our community!

Asperger’s Syndrome Gets a Very Public Face

The New York Times (December 4, 2007) wrote eloquently about the challenges and successes of Asperger’s Syndrome (Asperger’s Syndrome Gets a Very Public Face). It warmed my heart as a relative and as a rabbi.

I care deeply about someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, a relative of autism, characterized by unusual social interaction and communication skills and by an inability to read social cues. Years before this syndrome was diagnosed, we shared frustration with many interactions.

Today, we recognize Asperger’s Syndrome for what it is, a mental health issue, a personal challenge. I am pleased to have read about the poignant experience of Heather Kuzmich, who as a contestant on “America’s Next Top Model,” simultaneously served as a model for others with Asperger’s syndrome. She didn’t win (I wouldn’t really know since I don’t watch the show), but she did win the hearts of hundreds of thousands of viewers, not to mention scores of people with Asperger’s and their family members who were cheering her on.

As a rabbi, I retain fond memories about officiating at the B’nai Mitzvah ceremonies of so many children with with autism, Asperger’s and other special needs. Each was meaningful and heartwarming. Each was both special and exceedingly normal.

Perhaps that is the larger lesson that Heather Kuzmich’s experience teaches. Though facing challenges which are sometimes overwhelming, our special needs children and adults, relatives and friends deserve all the opportunities that we give to others. With patience and some assistance, they too can serve as top models for themselves and others.

Karen Harris Writes: When “Our” Special Needs Student Brandon Kaplan Became a Bar Mitzvah

Congregant Karen Harris writes:

The anticipation had been growing for months. Plans were being made, prayers were being studied and learned in sign language and the Brandon Kaplan Special Needs Fund was being established. When the invitation for Brandon’s Bar Mitzvah service arrived, I immediately responded that of course I would attend. I was honored to be included in those able to witness Brandon becoming a Bar Mitzvah. I was also curious and, if the truth be told, skeptical about Brandon’s abilities to actually perform the mitzvot necessary. After all, he does not speak, his sight is impaired, and I had no idea about his intellect. I have seen Brandon at services for the last seven years and always delighted in seeing how responsive he was to Cantor Doug Cotler’s music. I have seen him hug his beloved plush Torah to his chest and smile lovingly as Rabbi Paul Kipnes taught us Torah. But does he know what that represents? I was not sure . Certainly Brandon found joy in the midst of our congregational family. Certainly he was a shining fixture at services. But Torah? and God?… could that be beyond Brandon’s grasp?

On the Friday night before his Bar Mitzvah service, congregants gathered at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas to celebrate with Brandon. One member who is a professional flautist even came to play for him. When we were told that Brandon would be unable to attend the services as he was resting and preparing for his “big day,” it did not matter, we were there to celebrate Brandon and what he was about to achieve. The excitement in the sanctuary was palpable. After services members happily stayed to help set up chairs to accommodate the large group that was expected the next morning. It seemed that everyone wanted to be a part of this simcha. It was not because Brandon’s father Michael has served our congregation as President for the past two years. It was not because his mother Dina is an advocate for all children with special needs. It was because we have all watched Brandon grow over the past seven years. Grow as a person and as a member of the congregation with involvement in the Mishpacha Family Alternative Learning Program, the support group for families with Special Needs children, and regular attendance at services. Pretty impressive for a child so severely impaired that he remains undiagnosed within the medical and Special Education communities!

There was a thrill in the air Saturday morning. As Brandon’s guests arrived they each received a red bracelet commemorating the day and a package of Kleenex. The sanctuary was filled beyond capacity as the service began. It was explained that while we do not ordinarily applaud our B’nai Mitzvah, this was a most appropriate way for us to show Brandon our love, pride and approval.

Moreover, Rabbi Kipnes taught, “”There are two values being played out today, simultaneously, Brandon is a kid like any other kid created in the image of God, worthy of love. But Brandon is also a special kid and there is an honor and joy to our congregation that he participates to the fullness of his abilities. So he’s normal and special, but here’s the secret: so is every other kid.”

So Brandon stood on the bima with his dad and sister Jennifer. As he faced his mom for prompts, he clearly and distinctly signed the Shema and parts of the V’ahavta! He swayed with the liturgical music in the arms of his father. He had a look of pure unadulterated joy on his face as he marched around the congregation holding the Torah. No one in that sanctuary could deny that somewhere within his universe Brandon had connected to God and to the light and teachings of Torah. The Kleenex were not going to go to waste!

When it was time for the rabbi to have “the private moment of blessing” before the ark as he has with all our B’nai Mitzvah, he turned to Brandon, held his shoulders, touched his smiling face and spoke so no one but Brandon could hear. It was then that I was struck. This is just another kid becoming a Bar Mitzvah! How beautiful it was, how right and normal it felt. I suddenly “got” that Brandon is a uniquely spiritual young man who has served as a teacher to all of us who too often use the words “can’t” and “unable.” Although the attention to detail was extraordinary on the part of Brandon’s parents, teachers and clergy, it was clearly Brandon’s day to shine, and shine he did.

Afterward there was a wonderful party at Brandon’s Village, Calabasas’ universally accessible playground established in his honor. The weather was beautiful and everyone had a terrific time. As I was leaving I saw Rabbi Kipnes and told him how proud I was of Brandon and his family and of our congregation for being a place in which such an event would be so openly embraced. The Rabbi remarked, “See what happens when you get out of the way and let things happen!” As we say at Hanukkah, “A great miracle happened here”.

Marcy Cameron Reflects: “My Proudest Or Ami Moment: When Brandon Kaplan Became a Bar Mitzvah”

I have been a member of this congregation for seven years, serving on the board of directors and various committees, attending Mishpacha with my family and happily attending many social events and services. However, on Saturday, May 26, 2007, I experienced my proudest Or Ami moment when I attended the service in which Brandon Kaplan became a Bar Mitzvah. It was a beautiful Saturday morning; the sanctuary was full and alive with Cantor Doug Cotler’s music; and there was Kleenex in every hand! Brandon stood on the Bima – a young man who has managed to overcome so many challenges to reach this milestone. More challenges than should be allowed for someone that age. I am watching a family who never fails to be positive, supportive and giving. I am listening as Rabbi Paul Kipnes tells us that this moment is special and yet normal. No, it was not the most traditional service: a web-cam and 103 year-old grandpa lead the Motzi from across the country. Yet it was so traditional in that like every other B’nai Mitzvah, there was the boy Brandon leading the congregation in prayer. Whether you understood the sign language or not, you understood the significance of the day. I have never felt prouder to be part of a congregation that is so inclusive and able to adapt tradition to suit every need. To me the greatest part of Or Ami is our ability to reach out to everyone with a warm, welcoming hand and satisfy spiritual needs in ways that are as diverse as our members. What a gift to have been a part of this celebration and a part of Congregation Or Ami!

Sandy Stein Admits: “I Always Cry at Bar Mitzvah Services, But I Cried Even More at Brandon Kaplan’s!”

I seem to always cry at Bar Mitzvah services, mostly because I see our young children turning into young adults. Saturday May 26th, I just cried. I cried when Brandon Kaplan hugged the Torah with all his might, as though his life depended on it.

I cried when Brandon’s Grandma spoke to “her” Brandon.

I cried when his mother Dina would coax Brandon saying “Look at Mommy, Brandon”, and he would look at her adoringly, and sign his Torah portion.

I cried when his father, and our synagogue president, Michael Kaplan gave his “1 minute speech” which probably took him hours to write.

I cried when Great Grandpa of 103, recited the blessings over the wine and bread with a tear in his eye.

I cried because I am part of a Congregation that is a family. We are a family that is headed by our wonderful Rabbi Paul Kipnes, that always supports individuals and ideas, and that may not always conform to “normal” tradition. We all reveled that one of our family was making his way to becoming a man.

As Brandon signed through his Bar Mitzvah service, it was a joy to see his triumph, evidenced by the thunderous applause he received. Towards the end of his Bar Mitzvah celebration, Brandon signed “More Bar Mitzvah, more Bar Mitzvah”.

I cried…I wanted “More Bar Mitzvah” too!

William Gottschalk Realizes: “Experiencing the Same Joy When a Son Becomes a Bar Mitzvah”

Many attended the celebration of Brandon Kaplan becoming a Bar Mitzvah because of the respect for the efforts and influence of the Kaplan family. Many were also curious as to how this ceremony could be done because Brandon is so different from other kids. His special needs are significant. The service and ceremony were so wonderful, but most important, it demonstrated the love that this family has for this very special child. It was such a pleasure to see the Kaplan family experience the same joy of their son becoming a Bar Mitzvah as I did with my boys. Everyone’s efforts should be congratulated, but most important is that everyone present on Saturday should continue to enjoy the happiness that was created that day.

Communicating Openness: We Welcome Families with Special Needs

We know that Congregation Or Ami is a community that really “gets it” with regards to families with children with special needs. The families that are part of the synagogue – enjoying the B’nai Mitzvah we have crafted for children with all sorts of special needs, thriving in our Mishpacha program because its coordinator contact each special needs family before each session, and growing in the warmth of our Support Group for Parents of children with special needs – they know we “get it” too! But how do we communicate this to people in the greater community?

We are so excited to post our new webpage for Families with Special Needs. Filled with perspectives, policies, and personal reflections, we hope it will be inviting and encouraging! (And it was fun to create too!)

So check out our new webpage for Families with Special Needs.

Calabasas Boy Overcomes Serious Disabilities to Become a Bar Mitzvah (Acorn, 5/24/07)

The local weekly, The Acorn, tells us about one of the more emotional events at Or Ami, the upcoming Bar Mitzvah service of Brandon Kaplan. Brandon cannot write or speak, but he understands Judaism and loves Torah. And on Shabbat this Memorial Day Weekend, he becomes a Bar Mitzvah. I suspect there will not be a “dry eye in the house.”

But lest we think otherwise, B’nai Mitzvah for kids with special needs is not out of the ordinary, at least at Congregation Or Ami:

[Rabbi Paul] Kipnes emphasized that no matter what a child’s needs are, it’s never a question of if a child can have a bar or bat mitzvah- it’s when the ceremony will take place.

“There are two values being played out, simultaneously,” Kipnes said. “Brandon is a kid like any other kid created in the image of God, worthy of love.

“But Brandon is also a special kid and there is an honor and joy to the congregation that he participates to the fullness of his abilities. So he’s normal and special, but here’s the secret: so is every other kid.”

Congregation Or Ami has programs geared toward helping families with special needs children. One major program involved a coordinator calling all appropriate families to prepare them for the program or find ways to change it to make it work for them, Kipnes said.
Or Ami also has a support group for parents with special needs.

“There is a sense that children with special needs, physically, emotionally, mentally, don’t have a place in the synagogue, in the Jewish community,” Kipnes said.

“That’s just not true, particularly here. We have celebrated b’nai mitzvah with children with autism, emotional developmental problems, intense dyslexia, Tourette’s syndrome – the Torah and Judaism are available for all of them.”