Can My Special Needs Kid Become A Bar Mitzvah? Lessons I Learned Along The Trail

by Marni Freedman April 25, 2018


author-marni-freedmanWhen your child is a special needs preteen and still struggling with English, the thought of introducing Hebrew is a daunting concept. The thought of having a full-blown Bar Mitzvah, well – it can feel like an impossibility. That was before I met Rabbi Bernstein.

Let me back up and say that I’d always dreamed that my son would be Bar Mitzvahed at Congregation Beth Israel, because a thousand years ago, I was Bat Mitzvahed there. You know, a full circle experience. Yet the reality is that my son has severe dyslexia, dysgraphia and four other diagnoses that make traditional learning seriously difficult.

The week before I walked into Rabbi Bernstein’s office, I was home for the day with my funny and brilliant son (I know every mom thinks that, but he really is, wait ‘til you meet him). That day he wasn’t feeling so brilliant. He was experiencing severe anxiety, refusing to go to school. To say that we have struggled with the public school system is an understatement.  In this particular sixth-grade class, he was being bullied on a daily basis and the day before, his teachers had shamed him in front of other students, stating that he was only reading at a first grade level. His response: “I feel stupid.”

I sat, telling my son jokes to try to cheer him up, when my mother, herself a compassionate teacher, called. “Ready for your meeting with the Rabbi tomorrow?”  I dropped my head. How would we tackle one more hurdle?  In my gut I thought, this Bar Mitzvah won’t happen.

So that is the stage upon which I entered Rabbi Bernstein’s office. I assumed I would tell her a bit, enough for her to be scared off, and then politely walk out. Then I could report to my mother that I had tried, but that’s not what happened.  Within minutes I found myself opening up about what was happening in school.

I was waiting for her to look overwhelmed.  But instead, Rabbi Bernstein explained that she had a passion for students with special needs. “You know, he really struggles with reading,” I said.

“Well can he learn by listening? Does he like music?”  “Yes,” I said.

“So that is how we will break through to him.” Then with a look I will never forget, she said, “About that school. They don’t understand him.  Get him out of there.” It hit me like a ton of bricks.  She was right.

Next, we met with the lead rabbi, Rabbi Berk.  My son, voice shaking, admitted that he was nervous about his ability to learn all the prayers. The rabbi was confident. “We will tailor the service around your strengths. And if you’re ever nervous, I’m right there on the Bimah with you.” Impressed, I spoke to the education director, Ava Kurnow. She shared that the school was committed to funding special needs education.

“We’ve hired consultants to give advice on successful methodology, have one-on-one aides and there are always two – three classes that are designed for students who learn differently.”

Driving home, I asked my son, “How do you feel now?”

“Well, the rabbi’s gonna be right there with me, so I’m good. Plus, it just sort of feels good there.”  He spent the next few weeks learning his Torah Portion.  As he shared the speech – he wants to write about Jewish leaders who have learned from their flaws – I was floored.  It was more than real.My son would become a Bar Mitzvah.

The week after the Rabbi Bernstein meeting, we took him out of that school.  We floundered for a bit but landed with a charter school – where we could create our own recipe that involves a bit of home-schooling and tutors.  The new school retested him, and he tested at the sixth-grade level.  (I kid you not).

Parents of special needs kids:  If you are wondering if you should introduce the challenge of a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, I say go for it.  Make sure the congregation has some awareness of your child’s needs.  You will know from the first meeting if it’s a fit.

Jewish Educators: You can be the balm for parents and children who have struggled with mainstream approaches.  But more than that, you can create a space where the child can find a sense of strength and pride – but most importantly – home. Α


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