A few weeks before his bar mitzva, Jonah Friedman arrived at Cantor Janet Roth’s office at the Summit Jewish Community Center.
“Cantor, it’s time to start the lesson. Let’s go!” he practically commanded. Other kids often have to be dragged by their parents, but Jonah couldn’t wait to get started.
As he sped through the blessings before the haftara, it was increasingly difficult to understand him, and Roth stopped him. “Can you do that again, a little more clearly?”
Jonah backed up and started again. “Got it,” he said with a grin.
Jonah is the second of Rabbi Avi Friedman’s four children. He also has Down’s Syndrome.
In the last decades it has become increasingly common for teens with special needs to claim their places and voices in the Jewish community. As the son of the Conservative synagogue’s religious leader, Jonah is perhaps more visible than other children in similar situations. He has also come to play a pivotal role in the life of the congregation.
Since the Friedmans joined the community in 2005, the congregation has adapted to Jonah’s needs and differences. Early on, he would make plenty of noise, Roth recalled, dumping toy cars from a bucket during services. But he brings an intense passion and connection to Judaism that challenges the congregation.
“He’s totally connected, and it causes us all to rethink our own relationship with Judaism and Torah and what the synagogue and prayer experience should be,” said Roth. “Jonah walks around hugging everyone and telling people to sit down and be quiet — sometimes to the rabbi’s consternation.”
She adds, “He’s really changed us because at services he brings a lightness to it all that is infectious and fun — there’s an inner joy.” Roth compares his presence to that of the child in the famous story who sings the alef bet in shul with such purity of soul that it becomes a prayer that rises straight to heaven.
Rabbi Friedman recognizes the impact Jonah has had on his rabbinate. “I don’t see how it couldn’t,” he said. “But I think the bar mitzva” — on the Shabbat of Memorial Day weekend — “gave people insight into my life and my family in a way that no sermon or blog post ever could have.” Jonah’s “excitement is contagious,” he said, “so maybe we need to think about how is it that Jonah senses this and passes it onto some, while other people miss it?”
Ever cautious, however, Friedman has his own questions about his son. “I often think about Jonah’s passion for Judaism and wonder if it’s just because this is the life we present, or how much is his own personality.” He knows that SJCC is “the place where Jonah is most universally accepted and loved,” so it’s no surprise it has become his favorite place.
There are concerns. “We don’t know another Jewish child in the area with Down’s Syndrome,” said the rabbi. “I’m sure some exist, but Jonah hasn’t met them. For a kid for whom Judaism is so important, that’s sad.”
As his bar mitzva approached, Roth had some concerns about preparing Jonah. “I wanted him to look as good as all the other kids — I didn’t want him to look like, ‘Oh, there’s the boy with Down’s Syndrome,’” she said.
At his bar mitzva, Jonah led much of the service, for a congregation that included friends and family, including his mother, Jodi, and siblings Gabrielle, Jessica, and Ilana. He was called up for an aliya, read Torah and haftara, and gave his talk, impish opening and all. The only accommodation he had was that his haftara was shortened and in place of trope — the cantillation used to recite the Torah — he used a system Roth had developed for him.
Speaking a few days after the service, Rabbi Friedman said it was clear that his son grasped the significance of the day.
“He loved every minute of his bar mitzva. He totally got it. He understood this was his special day, and he reveled in it. He knows he counts in a minyan now and gets to wear tallit and tefillin. He was pretty excited for his first aliya.”
Jonah’s participation has shaped Friedman’s attitude toward the halachic, or Jewish legal, attitude toward those with special needs, who were typically distanced from society and considered free of ritual obligations. Pointing out that people with mental disabilities were traditionally consigned to this category with women and deaf people, he said, “I would add gay men and lesbians to the category as well. These are all examples of Jewish law being influenced by the values of the societies in which Judaism resided. The ancient rabbis could not imagine that women could do the same things as men, that the deaf could communicate beyond grunts and gestures, that a gay couple could have a family, or that a child with mental challenges could learn to do the things that other children do.”
He added: “The laws banning certain groups of people from certain roles in our community were based on some faulty assumptions. When those assumptions are shattered, the laws based upon them must necessarily crumble as well. That is why Halacha is — and must be — an organic, evolving system of law.”
As a testament to Jonah’s inclusion in the community, 75 children came to the kids’ party on Sunday. “They all wanted to be here to celebrate with Jonah,” said Friedman. “That makes us feel really good.”