They say that it takes a village to raise a child. I say that it takes a village… and a synagogue or three, an edah (Amitzim) and a family camp (Ohr Lanu) at Machaneh Ramah and a loving, supportive family.
On Sunday, October 12, 2014, my son, Jacob Gruen, became a Bar Mitzvah at age 13 at Adat Ari El in Valley Village, CA. He led the Sh’ma, received his talit and blessed it, carried the torah, had an aliyah and read the torah, marched with a lulav and an etrog and said the Kiddush. He also sang a number of songs, including a solo of Adamah B'Shamayim (which he first learned at Camp Ramah) with his Kolot Tikvah choir led by Cantor Michael Stein of Temple Aliyah. To many, this would not seem extraordinary. However, Jacob has autism, which manifests in him as moderate speech and social deficits and academic delays.
When I was little I thought that becoming a bar mitzvah was about learning to read the Torah and putting on tefillin. But as it gets closer I realize it is also about taking on some important adult responsibilities, like thinking of others. So in preparation for my upcoming bar mitzvah this spring I decided to "twin" with a child with disabilities from Beit Issie Shapiro in Ra’anana, Israel.
I know a lot about Beit Issie because my parents have been involved there since before I was born. It’s not only a school for children with developmental disabilities, but also a place where they teach therapists from all over the world new things.
So, Jewish life after Bar Mitzvah… It is hard to believe that there is life after Bar Mitzvah! Since our son Avi was diagnosed with autism as a toddler, we have been very goal-driven. What did he need to achieve his goals? How can we maximize his potential? What will his role be in the Jewish community, if any? Until quite recently, this was very much a blur. Some days the answers seemed clear; other days, we had no idea.
We knew Canada-born rap star Drake was Jewish, but he went full-blown MOT during his turn as host of Saturday Night Live this weekend, offering a comic look at how his African American and Jewish relatives came together to celebrate his bar mitzvah.
Ever since our son was diagnosed with autism, at age two and a half, I'd been wondering about his bar mitzvah. I come from a family of shulgoers who lead services, read from the Torah, and sing. My husband does, too. He and I have been teaching b’nei mitzvah for decades, and the question of our son’s bar mitzvah loomed large for 10 years.
A piece of my soul died when we decided that Ben’s autism would necessitate a reexamination of a conventional Bar Mitzvah service. Having guided so many young people through their studies towards becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah, I yearned to have the unique privilege of preparing my own son, my firstborn, the way my father, also a rabbi, had long ago prepared me.
Now, with just a bit less tumult (one hopes) comes B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, a Reform Movement pilot initiative to “radically rethink” the Jewish rite of passage and its place in synagogue life and education.