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Pianist with autism plays key role at synagogue
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Pianist with autism plays key role at synagogue

The ability to identify and reproduce a musical note without a reference is rare. Harris Engel, 20, is among the few individuals with perfect pitch, and this summer he has been putting that gift and his performance skills to work, subbing for the accompanist at Temple Emanu-El of West Essex in Livingston.

That distinction alone would be worthy of note, but what makes his achievement even more remarkable is that Harris is autistic.

As a child, Harris was nonverbal and had behavioral issues, said his mother, Helen Engel, in an interview with NJJN.

Over the years, he received support in school and camp, with additional help from specially trained aides. He made such steady progress over the years that now, with some continued assistance from the Livingston school district, he takes courses at County College of Morris and is receiving straight As in such classes as Music Theory and Hebrew.

A major influence in his advancement, said Helen, has been the opportunities for growth afforded him by Emanu-El.

Harris also acknowledged the support he has received from the congregation and said, “I feel wonderful that I get to play piano at the temple almost every Friday because I get to perform for my Temple Emanu-El of West Essex ‘family,’” he wrote in an e-mail to NJJN.

The discovery of Harris’s musical gift came when he was six years old and attending JCC MetroWest’s Camp Deeny Riback in Flanders. He listened as a music instructor taught a song to the campers for the first time. The next time the teacher played the song, Harris informed her that she was playing it in a different key.

The teacher told his mother that her son had perfect pitch.

Music has since been a big part of Harris’s life. He sings, plays piano and saxophone, and took part in the marching band at Livingston High School, playing the xylophone bell.

As for taking on the task of filling in for regular accompanist Dr. Allan Robinson, Helen again largely credits the support Harris has received at the temple.

“Somehow through all of these opportunities that he had, he was able to learn the entire liturgy basically and knows all of the prayers,” she said. “He knows all the songs and can play a good majority of them on the piano.”

Harris has been serving as substitute accompanist all summer, and even played piano at the first service led by the synagogue’s new religious leader, Rabbi Greg Litcofsky.

Harris said the piano is his favorite instrument because he has been playing it since he was about six. “My favorite song/prayer would have to be ‘Shalom Rav’ because the lyrics and the melodies are very catchy,” he wrote. “Plus, it takes me to Israel (even though I’ve never been there before).”

Emanu-El’s Cantor Sharon Brown-Levy said it has been a “pleasure” to work with Harris. “He is diligent, motivated, and talented. We work mainly once a week, and perhaps more as we prepare for the High Holy Day season,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Helen also pointed to the work of Rebecca Gallanter, the JCC MetroWest director of special-needs services, who oversees a program that aims to make synagogues more inclusive of individuals with challenges.

Helen said she will work with Emanu-El to help publicize the accommodations it makes, even little things like making sure ushers are aware of individuals’ special needs or making a mezuza accessible to a person in a wheelchair.

“The point is that when these kids are given the opportunity, and even if it’s for little bits at a time, you never know what they’re going to absorb,” said Engel. “I think it’s really important that kids be given this opportunity to have the exposure to this sort of thing.”

Harris, who lives with his mother and father, Peter, in Livingston, also receives support from JESPY House in South Orange, a nonprofit program that helps adults with learning and developmental disabilities live independently. Staff there help Harris in his academic pursuits and bring him to play piano at a CareOne senior facility two mornings a week.

Despite all the progress, Helen said her son “still really has a lot of behavioral issues.” But, she added, “to see him doing this and to see him keep his composure throughout an entire service and be on task and…be really paying attention, it gives me the hope that out there somewhere for him is a real career doing something like this.”

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