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Girl with autism affirms her Jewish identity
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Girl with autism affirms her Jewish identity

Before she was even two years old, Jules Friedman of Marlboro was diagnosed with autism. As recently as three years ago, she was largely nonverbal.

At one time, that would have dampened her family’s hope for her to become a bat mitzva in a conventional congregational setting.

But on Saturday, March 22, Jules stood on the bima at Temple Rodeph Torah in Marlboro, sang parts of the service, and, said her teacher, Rabbi Shira Stern, “was overjoyed to see all the people she loved in the world in one room.”

According to Stern, Jules’s bat mitzva experience reflected TRT’s policy of welcoming all Jews — however they are able to experience their Judaism. “We tailor curricula to accommodate our students, whether they are on the autism spectrum like Jules, or are differently learning-able, or have varying cognitive abilities,” Stern said. “We have worked with several students on the Asperger’s spectrum as well.”

Jules attends the SEARCH Day Program, an Ocean Township-based private nonprofit school for individuals on the autism spectrum. Her bat mitzva lessons began two and a half years ago.

Stern said she and music teacher Karen Joseph took advantage of Jules’s love for music by singing the liturgy of the Shabbat morning service, with which she was most familiar.

“We repeated parts of each prayer until she was able to sing on her own,” said Stern. “For the dress rehearsal on March 10, we invited all our students from the temple’s elementary and high school to provide her with an ‘audience’ so that she might be prepared for a crowd on the day she became a bat mitzva. She also read a story about the little girl who knew the alphabet, singing to God so that God could make the letters into blessings.

“And Jules sang every single prayer with joy and considerable accuracy.”

Still, on the day of the bat mitzva service, not everything went as planned. Jena Friedman, Jules’s mother, said her daughter was so excited and “so happy” that she couldn’t contain her enthusiasm. She strayed from the bima to say hello to people she knew and either forgot or chose not to sing some of the prayers she had learned. Through it all, however, Jules exuded “sincere excitement and appreciation,” said her mother.

Fortunately, excerpts from her years of study had been filmed, and a seven-minute montage was incorporated into the bat mitzva service, showing just how much Jules had learned.

Virtually everyone in attendance understood that individuals with autism are  wired differently from the neurotypical, and often have difficulty staying on task.

“My daughter didn’t do what I wanted her to do, [but she was] practically overcome with joy,” Jena wrote in a blog on the website buffersandbreakthroughs.com on March 23. “What I needed really to understand is that yesterday was not about me or all of the years of preparation that I or anyone else put into this one day. Yesterday was a celebration of my daughter’s journey, her ongoing relationship with Judaism.”

Friedman said she realized, “My daughter’s bat mitzva was a celebration of a love affair. My daughter loves being Jewish! She loves her temple, her rabbis, her teachers, her congregation…and they love her back!”

Ultimately Friedman recognized, “What has happened is so much better than my original intent. I had wanted to share my Jewish identity with my daughter, [and instead] I learned that this young lady has established her own Jewish identity. That is so much more than what I ever imagined.”

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