In the American Jewish community, the bar mitzvah (and later bat mitzvah) has long stood out as a pinnacle moment in the life of a family and individual. To be sure, some of the milestone’s import stems from the social pressure we might feel to “put on a good party” for our friends. But the bar and bat mitzvah also hold such weight because, in the celebration of turning 13 and partaking in traditional practices of our faith, young Jews are making a very public pronouncement of pride in being Jewish and in becoming a member with full benefits in the Jewish community.

For many young Jews, however, a bar or bat mitzvah seemed out of reach, not for lack of desire, but because the expected achievements that marked the moment—like reading from the Torah, chanting blessings and other prayers and teaching the congregation—involved cognitive or social abilities that they struggled to sustain. Indeed, how could a child classified as “non-verbal” or one who suffered from social anxiety undertake some of the rituals of the bar/bat mitzvah? The answer for too many of these children was to skip the milestone altogether, a truly unfortunate circumstance that families accepted with the same sad resignation they did about so many other experiences they knew their child with special needs would never have the opportunity to enjoy.

But not all parents of children with disabilities were (or are) willing to so resign themselves. They know that even if their child cannot read or speak or process in typical ways, their son or daughter is just as proud of their Jewish heritage as any child and is equally eager to demonstrate their pride to friends and family. Still, how is it possible to marry the desire to experience the rite of passage with the reality that the customs that define that ceremony may be largely inaccessible to a child with special learning needs?

To reconcile this tension, Gateways follows a twofold strategy. First, Gateways expert educators work with families and clergy together to make modifications within the service and its implementation to accommodate the child’s specific needs and abilities. Second, Gateways has established the infrastructure necessary to adequately prepare each child to reach her/his own personal benchmarks. The Gateways B’nei Mitzvah Program curriculum allows students to explore the meaning of the bar/bat mitzvah experience, a weekly opportunity to practice prayers and reading in a social and supportive setting and to form a one-on-one relationship with a dedicated tutor.

We’re pleased to have the voices of each of the players in this partnership—program manager, tutor, clergy, parent and, of course, bar mitzvah celebrant. It illustrates how many possibilities are open to students with disabilities, if we approach the process thoughtfully, individually and collaboratively.

David Farbman is the director of the Center for Professional Learning at Gateways.

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