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Of Course Your Child with Special Needs Can Become a Bar Mitzvah

I received a message recently about a parent of a child with special needs.  It seems that this parent was unsure that the special needs child could ever become a Bar Mitzvah.  Here’s my response to the parent:

Recently, Cantor Doug Cotler and I officiated at two different B’nai Mitzvah services of children with special needs. In each case, the parents were sure that their child would never read from Torah, lead the service or become a Bar Mitzvah. Like the few dozen other such families who thought the same, they were overwhelmed and blown away when their child led the service, read from Torah and gave a speech. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house!  

At Congregation Or Ami, we are committed to the idea that any child of a member who works to the best of his or her ability, has the privilege and right to a Jewish learning experience and to becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. The children participate in a real service, just one that is subtly tailored to each child’s unique abilities (which, by the way, is basically what we do for EVERY child).  

What does that mean?

  • Maybe he will read Torah but not Haftarah. 
  • Maybe he will sing the prayers he knows and explain others. 
  • Maybe his service will be before only 15-20 of the closest and then there will be a bigger party. 
  • Maybe he will only chant one verse of Torah per aliyah. 
  • Maybe his Torah portion will be the V’ahavta prayer, which he will already know by heart (the V’ahavta in the prayerbook, comes from the Torah). 
  • Maybe… maybe… maybe… 

The keys to it all are three interlocking elements:  

  1. The commitment of the Temple to say “YES, this CAN and WILL happen.”  
  2. The creativity of our B’nai Mitzvah tutor Diane Townsend to figure out ways to get each child to do his/her best. Diane works with me to tailor the service in a way that outsiders would not realize is tailored, but makes your child shine brightly.  
  3. The willingness of the parents to let go of their sense that it cannot happen, but instead to believe that yes, my son – just like every other Jewish boy – can become a Bar Mitzvah. 

By the way, I have NEVER encountered a child with special needs (at Congregation Or Ami or at my previous synagogues) who could not and did not become a Bar/Bat Mitzvah.  

I so look forward to celebrating as your son becomes a Bar Mitzvah. So don’t worry.
Just say to yourself, “Yes, this will happen.” Then breathe…  

We can talk more if you want.

Gosh, I wish we could better publicize this message.  I wish that all synagogues would realize that there should be NO barriers to children with special needs, especially with regard to Jewish ritual.

Alas, we can only work in our little corner of the world…


  1. Anonymous says:

    Our family is living proof that a child with special needs can do it! With Or Ami anything is possible. Love The Tilliss Family

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