Meeting needs of autistic b’nei mitzva
B’nai Or provides tailored approach to Jewish learning
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Jenny Rose, who is autistic, feels strongly about what she achieved at her bat mitzva on Oct. 31.
“It’s something to be proud of. I made a speech, with three life lessons: Sometimes you have to take a stand, family is important, and good and bad things happen to everyone,” said the Morristown teen. “And I read my Torah portion, Lech Lecha. I read it in Hebrew.”
Normally, an achievement like Jenny’s might be considered unusual for an autistic youngster. But if educators at Temple B’nai Or in Morristown have their way, inclusive b’nei mitzva programs for kids like Jenny may soon become the norm.
Just four years ago, the Reform temple was figuring out how to respond to a request from the Herbert family, who asked that the synagogue find a way for their autistic child, Hannah, to celebrate becoming a bat mitzva. Hers was a groundbreaking event.
Religious school teacher Bonnie Rosenthal worked with Hannah and has since worked with many of the special needs children at the synagogue. Rosenthal said she understands such children; she, too, has learning disabilities. In working with the youngsters, she uses behavior modification, plenty of positive reinforcement, and special toys — like the squishy doll whose head Jenny would squeeze to work out her frustrations during her studies.
Rosenthal also developed a model siddur when she worked with Hannah. Using Gates of Prayer, the Reform movement prayer book, she did some cutting and pasting, deleting all the sections not included in the service, while adding directions and some highlighting. (As Jenny explained while she displayed the siddur, “Yellow is what the cantor says; purple is what I say.”)
Today, the question at B’nai Or is not whether an autistic child can celebrate becoming a bar or bat mitzva but how, or even if, the service will need to be tailored — in Jenny’s case, no tailoring was necessary. She read the Torah portion and haftara, delivered the speech she had written, and had the help of her younger sister Flora, nine, who also has autism but was able to hold the Torah scroll while Jenny read the haftara.
‘No stopping her’
Rosenthal declines to take credit for Jenny’s success on the bima. “Most of it was Jenny’s effort and her wanting to become a bat mitzva, and her incredible understanding of what it meant to be a bat mitzva,” Rosenthal told NJJN.
Jenny’s father, Jonathan, said, “I’m not that religious myself, but this was an extremely moving experience to see my daughter reading the original Hebrew of the Torah as Jews have done it for thousands of years.
“There’s nothing like it.”
He said he suspects ceremonies for young people like his daughter are becoming more commonplace, in part because there are simply more children with autism. (Surveys reflect a rise in autism from about four in 10,000 early in the 20th century to anywhere from 30 to 80 in 10,000, depending on the study, today.)
But not every congregation or every house of worship is as successful in accommodating a special youngster as B’nai Or, at least in the Rose family’s experience. An interfaith family, they first went to a Unitarian fellowship in the area, but were “disappointed,” according to Gayle, Jenny’s mother. Then, they tried a different local synagogue, but Jenny “seemed to have great difficulty with Hebrew, and we pretty much had sort of given up,” she said.
Then they came B’nai Or, where, said her mother, “Jenny got the hang of Hebrew and then there was no stopping her.”
Jenny is at the very high functioning end of the autism spectrum. She attends Frelinghuysen Middle School and will go to Morristown High School next year. Although she was enrolled in the special-needs class at B’nai Or for one year, she moved into a mainstream religious-school class after that. She did have extra tutoring with Rosenthal to concentrate on learning Hebrew.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t frustrations along the way. “It was a sensational experience,” said Jonathan Rose. “Jenny has had to struggle with a lot. It was everything we’ve hoped for. It proved everything she can do.”
Now, they look forward to Flora’s bat mitzva — because she is more severely affected, they aren’t sure when it will be, or what accommodations will be made. But they know that it will happen at Temple B’nai Or.