I recently had the pleasure of attending the 100th Bar Mitzvah at Gateways: Access to Jewish Special Education, and what a beautiful morning it was! All thanks to a program that promotes Jewish disability awareness and inclusion. First and foremost, a huge Mazal Tov to my friend Adar and his family!

Bar Mitzvah boy with autism receiving the Torah from his father in his synagogue. Mother is looking on with a look of pride.
A proud father passes the Torah to his son.

Milestones for people with disabilities

Gateways is a program I have mentioned before, and one my family is very grateful for. 

I remember being at the beginning of my pregnancy and frantically researching synagogues and Jewish preschools…I couldn’t believe how far in advance the spots filled up! When Harry was a baby, however, we realized his life, our lives, were going in a completely unfamiliar direction. Religious school was now on the back burner. Spending the first six months of life in the NICU kind of rearranges your priorities.

Once Harrison’s health was stabilized, we could start enriching his life instead of just coasting through it. Early Intervention and then, special ed at our local public school, were the places to start. Finally, we could pay more attention to inclusive extracurricular activities for him (therapeutic riding, summer camp, swimming, Hebrew School, etc), and he could start having fun!

I am Jewish, not really religious but a traditional Jew, as they say. My husband and step-children are Catholic. My family is out of town, so we are not able to be together for Jewish holidays. All I really wanted for my kid was some exposure to Judaism. I found Gateways, and exposure was only the beginning of what they could offer.

Accessible Jewish Education in Massachusetts

We went to check out the program, and the first thing they requested was a copy of his IEP. What??? You are really going to help him learn, the way he needs to learn??? Oh my gosh, I was so happy, and so relieved, and so excited for the possibilities!

The idea of my son learning about being a Jew and actually becoming a Bar Mitzvah had seemed so far-fetched. When I tried to picture it, it just made me sad. I imagined him being at the front of a random congregation and watching the service go on around him. It had never occurred to me that he would not only participate in but truly direct his entire service! I wrote about his incredible day last Spring, if you are curious to learn more about the planning and the big day.

Adaptive Bar Mitzvah Lessons

Every Sunday at Gateways, Harry would learn about Judaism: songs and prayers, Jewish values, holidays, traditions. As long as he was awake and alert (he’s not a morning person, plus his seizures knock him out), he always had a blast! His favorite thing to do was to hold the Torah and carry it around the classroom, in his wheelchair, to display it to his friends. It is tradition to show respect by touching your prayer book or prayer shawl to the Torah and bringing it to your lips (“kissing the Torah”), and he absolutely loved being in charge of that!

Harry’s Hebrew teachers incorporated his iPad and his switches so that he could answer questions and sing songs. They let him explore real objects and paired them with graphics and videos to give him a better understanding of important pieces of Jewish life. The accommodations they make are never-ending.

Despite my fears, we reached this milestone. And I am so grateful for the photos and video so we can revisit the day whenever we want.

Disabled boy in a wheelchair with a Jewish prayer shawl (talit) wrapped around his shoulders. He is holding and small Torah to practice for his Bar Mitzvah. Jewish disability and awareness.
A Bar Mitzvah dress rehearsal to show Mom and Dad what he has accomplished.

Inclusive celebration of Jewish holidays

I have actually had the wonderful pleasure of photographing some of the students and staff working together at Gateways. In fact, I will be there again in March for their upcoming Purim carnival!

Mom and young son in front of a photo booth at a Jewish special education Purim Carnival. Son is dressed in costume as Spiderman.
Tamar Davis, Director of Gateways, and her son, at last year’s Purim carnival.

Disability Awareness and Inclusion

I write this to contribute my part to Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, which is recognized this month of February. Don’t feel bad if this is news to you…I only recently learned about it myself. I happened upon an article by an organization called RespectAbility, and I am looking forward to following them and learning what they do for the disability community. Check them out when you have a moment.

Anything is possible, right?

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