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B’nei mitzva reconsidered: breaking the mold
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B’nei mitzva reconsidered: breaking the mold

MetroWest ABLE (Access, Belonging and Life Enrichment for People and Families with Special Needs) is the community’s network of agencies and community leaders that serve and advocate for individuals with special needs and their families. MetroWest ABLE is making connections within the Jewish community to raise awareness and support meaningful inclusion of people with special needs and their families in every aspect of Jewish life in MetroWest, creating a community made whole and complete by the inclusion of all of its members. MetroWest ABLE is funded by the UJA Campaign, the Linda Bunis Haller Foundation, the Gary Aidekman Family Foundation, and The Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey. For more information, contact Rebecca Wanatick, community coordinator, at 973-929-3129 or rwanatick@ujcnj.org.

From the time that we feel the first kick in the womb, every parent dreams of the milestones that their son or daughter will reach. The first step, first words, Little League, graduation — the moments that will mark our child’s progress towards adulthood.

One of the most important and most emotional milestones for many Jewish parents is the bar or bat mitzva celebration; the service, party, friends, family, and the naches. We dream of the “performance” the young boy or girl will make. As the child grows up, this vision takes shape until we (and our child) finally reach the big day when they take their place in the legacy of Jewish tradition and faith — and take responsibility as a young man or woman.

But maybe it is time to rethink the entire structure of this celebration.

The current structure of the bar/bat mitzva celebrations can create a disdain on the part of many children who don’t fit into “cookie-cutter” programs. Too many kids are pushed to jump through the hoops that we have created so the parents can feel accomplished, at the expense of their child. Once the event is over, these young adults kick the door of the synagogue on the way out and don’t return for years.

For families who have a child with special needs or learning challenges, the bar/bat mitzva is a nightmare that just does not seem to go away. The current mindset — that all such ceremonies must culminate in certain public performances on the part of the child — creates a barrier which becomes insurmountable in the minds of these parents. “There is no way that my child could become a bar mitzva. He can’t read Hebrew, daven, or even participate properly in the services.”

But does it have to be, and should it really be, celebrated in such a contrived way?

Kabbalistic sources tell us that the Godly soul enters the body at the time of birth and continues to manifest itself throughout the formative years. However, it completes its entry on the occasion of the bar/bat mitzva, when it becomes totally united with the person. It is at this time that the education and practice that we hopefully have imbued in our child becomes real — the child gets called up from the minors and enters the big leagues. It is now that they take their education and begin using it to impact the world around them, and the people that they come into contact with, in a more tangible way.

The bar/bat mitzva is a celebration of a milestone in the Jewish education of the child. To understand what that should entail, we need to first understand what Jewish education should be.

The fundamental concept regarding Judaism’s approach to education is expressed by King Solomon in Proverbs: “Educate a child according to his way; even when he grows older, he will not depart from it.”

It would seem that the verse should have read “according to the way,” since we want to educate our child based on the ways of the Torah and mitzvot. The commentaries remark that the use of the wording, “according to his way,” is a challenge to parents and educators to take the words of Torah and traditions and make them relevant to the child that is being taught. The education of each child needs to be catered to the strengths of that particular child. What would be fitting and appropriate for one child can sometimes be detrimental and the greatest disservice to another. Yes, this is not an easy task, but one that we as parents, educators and community have a responsibility — and a commandment — to do.

The bar/bat mitzva, as a milestone in the education of the child, thus also needs to be done “according to his way.” The service and celebration need to reflect the strengths of each and every young adult that reaches this special moment. Reading the Torah might be appropriate and laudable for one child, but totally inappropriate for another. Leading the davening might be rewarding for a child with a nice voice, but terrifying for someone who is tone-challenged.

There are no prerequisites to becoming a bar or bat mitzva. It happens if the child is ready or not. The only question is: How will we use this opportunity to impart a lifelong lesson in our child and celebrate their accomplishments on this special day?

We need to celebrate their strengths and abilities and highlight their unique contribution to the Jewish community. We need to change this important milestone into an event that the child will look forward to and which will remain a part of their life as a young adult and beyond.

Many synagogues have made this transition and work with the families to create an individualized opportunity for each and every child no matter their level of abilities or strengths. It isn’t easy, but it can be done and it must be done if we hope to keep our youth involved. It can and must be done especially for those with unique abilities, so that each and every person can have their special moment celebrating the unique contribution that they can and will make to the Jewish community.

Mazal Tov!

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