Each month, we introduce you to another “Voice at the Gates,” someone whose life has been changed by Gateways’ innovative programs and services. These include children with special needs in multiple Jewish learning settings across the community, their families and their educators.
Ethan was only 5 when his parents first brought him through the door of Gateways’ Sunday morning Jewish Education Program, then Etgar L’Noar. Eight years later, the last two spent on bar mitzvah preparation, the Westford, MA youngster was ready to become a bar mitzvah.
None of the key players – his parents, the Gateways staff and volunteers and certainly not Ethan himself — would hear of letting his autism prevent him from reaching this milestone of Jewish life.
One of those players was Gateways’ Jewish Education Program Coordinator Nancy Mager, who first met Ethan when he was 8 years old. “He was a bundle of energy,” she recalls. “He didn’t sit still, and spent most of the time walking the halls.”
But what she didn’t know then “was that Ethan was learning — on his own terms. He was picking up more than we ever dreamed.” And, when he began preparing for his bar mitzvah, Mager knew he’d need a special kind of tutor. “It took a while to locate the right one but, after a few months, I knew I’d found her.” Vicki Freidman was an experienced special educator, someone Mager knew would “get” Ethan as soon as she began working with him. “Then she’d see what he’s capable of.”
“At Gateways Ethan found people who care about him, people who taught him to read Hebrew, people who prayed with him,” says his mom, Marla Richmond.
This was not to be the Gottlieb family’s first Gateways bar mitzvah however. Older son Jacob who is deaf became a bar mitzvah in 2007. But his parents knew things needed to be different for Ethan. For one thing, they decided not to have the bar mitzvah in their temple, feeling Ethan’s Gateways classroom would feel more familiar and comfortable. “It’s a place where he’s completely at home,” says his mom.
His teachers began with file folder activities that familiarized Ethan with bar mitzvah skills such as holding the Torah and wearing a kippah. To help Ethan learn how to participate in his bar mitzvah service, the method of task analysis was used to create visual supports that break down complex tasks such as putting on a tallit and dressing the Torah into sequential steps presented in words and pictures. His teachers also began taping Ethan’s bar mitzvah learning. “We had the laptop’s video-camera rolling during each lesson so we would be able to show his friends and family how much progress he’d made,” says Mager.
Viewing the videos, it became obvious that Ethan was making tremendous strides, reading prayers in both English and Hebrew. “It was more than we ever thought possible,” she adds. “And we were absolutely delighted. Now that we knew the knowledge was in there, we had to figure out a way to get him comfortable enough to lead a service in front of his friends and family.”
His teachers began adding more sitting time each week so that, by the time Ethan’s bar mitzvah day arrived, he was able to sit through the entire service. What’s more, though he was most comfortable in jeans and a T-shirt, Ethan gradually began wearing nicer and nicer clothes to class to prepare him for the sports coat, button-down shirt and khakis he would don for his bar mitzvah.
“All this was huge, but the absolutely best part for Ethan was working with Vicki,” says his mom. “From the beginning, she was attuned to what was going on with him. She knew when he could pay attention, she knew when he had to get up and move. Most of all, she knew he could do it.”
Ethan showed everyone there that day — family, friends, Gateways faculty and students — the fruits of his Gateways preparation, and his hard work. When he walked in, he slowly paced the room. “The look on his face showed so clearly: ‘I know all these people and I know they’re all here for me,’” says his mom.
Gradually, deliberately, Ethan led the Torah service. He led it quietly – it had been decided a microphone would be distracting for him – with Freidman and Rabbi Karen Landy by his side, along with his parents. “G-d could hear him and I could hear him,” Richmond says. “And when G-d hears you and your mom hears you, that’s what counts.”
“Everyone there was beaming at him,” Mager says. “Ethan, and each child we see through the bar/bat mitzvah process, teaches us something. All those years we did not know how much he was learning. But that day he showed us he had been listening – and learning — all along.”
His father Bob Gottlieb also looked on with pride. “He knows these kids. He sings along. He’s happy there,” says his dad. “Gateways is a good place for him. Ethan could not have had a bar mitzvah if it weren’t for Gateways. Without Gateways, he wouldn’t have had a Jewish education at all.”
Nearly a year has gone by, and Ethan still wakes up Sunday mornings, puts on his Gateways T-shirt and tells his parents, “Time to go to Sunday school.” He also takes great pleasure in looking at the pictures of his special day. “That’s me,” he smiles, pointing to a photo of himself running up the hill, his tallis flying behind him. “That’s me.”