Having special needs, whether cognitive, developmental or physical, doesn’t exclude children and their families from wanting to make b’nai mitzvah, but it does make it more challenging.
Lori and David Burman have two sons, Jacob, 16 and Evan, 13. Evan had his bar mitzvah this past August, despite struggling with dyslexia. But Lori said that many of the challenges they had to overcome started with her older son, Jacob, who had his bar mitzvah several years ago.
“Each Sunday, we were putting him in classes learning Hebrew, and it wasn’t working,” said Burman, who attends Columbia Jewish Congregation.
Burman added that her son attended a school that had smaller classes and specialized instruction for students with special needs during the week. After much frustration, she eventually had a conversation with a family therapist, Sue Finkelstein.
“She said, ‘What are you doing? Pull him out of Sunday school and tutor him,’” said Burman. “I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ I’ve never had any friends who said Sunday school didn’t work.”
Finkelstein added that she doesn’t necessarily support children being pulled out of Hebrew school, but if they are creating strong negative associations with Hebrew school, then that is more harmful to their Jewish identity then being removed.
She recommended Bill Bronstein, a tutor with more than 40 years of experience teaching students with special needs in both religious and secular environments.
“You hear so many people say, ‘Here is the material and how I teach, so the child better learn it,” said Bronstein. “I’m not just teaching the subject, I get to know the student and what their likes are and adapt my teaching toward that.”
But what surprised Burman the most was that Bronstein didn’t teach her sons to memorize their haftorah and Torah sections; he taught them to read Hebrew properly. Bronstein added that although Evan and Jacob both learned differently, they both got a grasp on Hebrew as a language, which he was proud of because he never allowed them to fall back on transliteration.
Ultimately, what made the difference for Burman was taking a different route than the crowd. Burman said CJC was always supportive of her family’s choices and that she is grateful to them for allowing her to go a different route.
“I think [making b’nai mitzvah] can be an individualized experience, and [it’s important to set] goals that are relevant for the family,” said Rachel Turniansky, director of disability and inclusion services at the Macks Center for Jewish Education. “And not to think about the standard, but to create something that is meaningful for everybody.”
CJE is an educational arm of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, and Turniansky works to help students with developmental, cognitive and physical disabilities make b’nai mitzvah.
While dyslexia doesn’t fall under any of these categories, autism does, and creating an individualized experience is what Fern and Sam Cohen’s son, Ian, will do to celebrate his bar mitzvah.
The Cohens have three kids: Josh, 16, Rachel, 10 and Ian, 13. After Josh’s bar mitzvah, they decided to move to CJC because they heard about how accommodating it is for special needs students.
“[Ian] has a lot of anxiety so we decided to have a family aliyah,” said Fern Cohen, who is also an instructor at CJC’s Hebrew school. “We’ll have a Kiddush luncheon afterward, and hopefully sometime later in life he’ll want a traditional bar mitzvah.”
Cohen said that a part from creating a unique bar mitzvah, some of the preparation has had its own challenges. She recalled when she, Ian and Rabbi Sonya Starr were going to meet, but Ian refused to go to the meeting.
“I said to Ian, ‘Where can we have the meeting so you’ll come?’” said Cohen. “He has his favorite restaurant, it’s called Expectation, so the rabbi came to the restaurant, and we had the meeting there.”
Cohen hopes Ian will be active in BBYO and birthright as well as have a more traditional bar mitzvah, but for the time being, she and her husband are more concerned about him being comfortable in whatever ceremony he does participate.
Said Cohen, “We figured the best approach is to not force him to do anything that will make him nervous.”