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”.