Like most b’nei mitzva students at Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains, Jonathan Wiener led the Thursday morning minyan, recited Kiddush on Friday night, and led the Saturday morning service with confidence. Jonathan sounded well prepared; he chanted his maftir portion in a loud, enthusiastic voice, and he chanted his haftara flawlessly.
What distinguished Jonathan from most other b’nei mitzva students at CBI, however, is that he has autism.
He does not always make eye contact when spoken to, nor does he chat freely like most of his peers. Jonathan is often in a world of his own, fully engaged in his mind, but not with what is going on in his environment. He is passionate about golf, game shows, and plumbing.
Jonathan knew exactly what to do in services on his bar mitzva in mid-November. He was eager, enthusiastic, and proud to be leading services that day, and the congregation was clearly just as excited to see how Jonathan would do.
Jonathan’s parents, Marcia and Stephen Wiener, have brought him to services at the synagogue erev Shabbat and Saturday morning and to Sunday minyan week after week for years. They were determined to bring Jonathan into the Jewish community, and the leaders and members of Congregation Beth Israel have accepted him willingly.
At CBI we have a motto, coined by former director of education Ruth Gross: “Nobody flunks Judaism.” Regardless of your skill set, your intellectual or physical ability, or your learning style, you have a right to belong to the Jewish community and to enjoy what it has to offer.
Educators and therapists have worked with Jonathan throughout his life to teach him how to read and learn. He has worked with a music therapist since the age of three, and because of his love of music, learning prayers and trope was enjoyable, not a chore. A team of educators, clergy, therapists, and of course his family has supported Jonathan in his preparation for this day, but he learned much of his tefilla simply by attending services.
As he sits in the sanctuary, it often appears that his mind is somewhere else, and his gaze is only occasionally focused on the siddur. But his brain works like a sponge, soaking up information and cues from his environment. He has a strong desire to be part of the congregation, and he emulates our behavior — chanting, bowing, and even announcing pages.
In time, Jonathan demonstrated that he indeed knew major parts of the service. He was frequently invited to lead Ashrei or Aleinu in the regular Shabbat service and morning minyan. What was clear early on was that Jonathan thought that coming to services was cool. If his father was attending services, Jonathan wanted to join him. He feels very comfortable at CBI. It truly has become a second home to him.
This comfort level did not happen by accident. Reaching children on the autism spectrum is a challenge — each child has different abilities and different learning styles. Because of the way people with autism process stimuli, it is important to keep the learning environment predictable, relatively quiet, and as free of distractions as possible. Most importantly, a student with autism needs to feel safe. Because Jonathan’s parents bring him to services regularly, and because the members of CBI welcome him and, in many cases, have befriended him, he feels safe and happy here.
For his bar mitzva theme, Jonathan’s parents chose the Masters Golf Tournament. After his stellar day on the bima, they presented him with a green jacket, just like the one the tournament winner receives. He wore it proudly at the kiddush luncheon. Congregants and family members wished him a “mazel tov,” and, as usual, Jonathan accepted the congratulations with little affect, seemingly distracted by something running through his mind.
But he was listening. He knew he was loved and respected for the fine job he did.
Jonathon will read Torah again at CBI, and will be called up for another aliya soon, because he is a valued, dedicated member of our temple community.