For most parents, the bar mitzva of a child is an occasion of joy and pride; for Sari Yates, it was “the best moment of my life.”
She said she never could have imagined that her son, Jesse Martinez, who is autistic and has trouble communicating, would ever be called to the bima.
Yates acknowledged that her son is “not very high functioning” and spends most his time writing the names of songs he likes and his favorite Disney movies or playing with his computer. He attends a special-needs school on the campus of Mercer County Community College in West Windsor.
“I went to Hebrew school, and I wanted him to go to Hebrew school,” said Yates of East Windsor. “Hebrew school is such an important part of a Jewish child’s life. But I never really thought about a bar mitzva for Jesse until recently.”
So when he stood before relatives and congregants at the Chabad Jewish Center of Monroe on July 31 wearing a tallit and kipa, it was an overwhelming moment for Yates.
“It’s the best joy I’ve had since he was diagnosed with autism at age three,” she said.
About two years ago, Yates began looking for a Jewish institution that would educate her son in a classroom setting and came to the center at the suggestion of her mother, Roberta Yates, who lives in the Clearbrook adult community in Monroe.
Jesse’s mother and grandmother “wanted him to have a little Jewish culture and tradition,” said Chanie Zaklikovsky, who directs the center with her husband, Rabbi Eliezer Zaklikovsky. She said she accepted Jesse because she had had experience with an integrated program for special education youngsters at a private yeshiva she had worked in in Brooklyn.
Chanie Zaklikovsky has taught at several Jewish schools, including the Solomon Schechter Day School of Raritan Valley in East Brunswick, and now runs Cheder Menachem in North Brunswick, for children of Chabad emissaries, and the Chabad Jewish Center’s Hebrew school.
‘A different plane’
Zaklikovsky engaged two Rutgers University students to shadow Jesse in class at different times. She was struck by how good he was with numbers and letters and said he always carried a notebook with him to write down words he liked. She developed particular activities she knew would engage him.
“I noticed Jesse liked to work with clay,” said Zaklikovsky, “so when we were learning the alef-bet I had him form the letters with clay. When the students were learning about culture, I had him touch things. If we were talking about food, I had him touch the food.”
Zaklikovsky said that other students initially were intimidated by Jesse, who is 14 and “big” for his age, but they came to appreciate their classmate and learned the lesson of acceptance of others with differences.
“They learned so much from Jesse,” Zaklikovsky said. “They were actually inspired by how he loved davening prayers.”
It was also apparent that although Jesse didn’t talk much, he liked to sing, so by his second year at the school Zaklikovsky suggested he prepare for becoming bar mitzva.
Rabbi Zaklikovsky recorded the blessings, which Jesse listened to “over and over again.” Yates sat with her son every night studying them. While Jesse did not chant the Torah portion or haftara, he was given the aliya and recited the blessings before and afterward.
“For Jesse to come to the Torah and make this leap as a special-needs child was very emotional not only for me, but for the entire congregation,” said Rabbi Zaklikovsky. “There was not a dry eye in the house.”
The congregation was not only moved by Jesse’s accomplishment, the rabbi said, but also because the ceremony “focused on the core of Jewish values” and put people in touch with their spirituality. “Jesse is on a different plane from most of us,” he explained. “He doesn’t understand materialism. People really felt this was one big simha. It was a celebration not only of Jesse, but also the accomplishments of his mother, who is a courageous woman. What she did for this child is really a tribute to her.”
And Yates said she believes her son understood the significance of the day. She recalled that the night before the big event when she reminded him it was time for them to study the prayers, Jesse answered, “One more time.”