Planning a Special Needs Bar/Bat Mitzvah

Parents, educators, rabbi, and student must work as a team to adjust the ceremony to the student's learning style and capabilities.

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Basic questions about the child, the family, the synagogue, and the professionals involved must be thoroughly discussed and resolved to everyone's satisfaction at the outset. Starting far in advance of the target date, the team should agree on comfortable and achievable goals and a plan of action. Open, honest dialogue can prevent misunderstandings and facilitate the process.

Focus on Child's Strengths, Weaknesses, and Unique Gifts

Discussion should begin by realistically acknowledging the young person's strengths and limitations. All future plans can then follow in a way that maximizes his or her abilities and circumvents possible problems. An honest assessment of what is educationally and behaviorally possible for the child is essential to guide the team in designing an appropriate and meaningful experience. The focus should be both on the ceremony itself and on the preparation for it.

People learn in different ways, and preparation should be completely individualized and incorporate this child's strongest modalities. What can he or she realistically learn and how is that learning best accomplished? Are audio or video tapes helpful? Can material be color-coded or written in large print? Parents and Jewish educators may want to consult with secular educators who may be able to be very specific in pinpointing how the child learns best and how he or she will best be able to demonstrate those accomplishments.

People who have disabilities also have unique gifts, which should be reflected in the ceremony. Preparation should consider ways to express this person's talents and feelings about Judaism and its significance in his or her life. Does he or she have a particular love for music or dance? Can he or she paint or draw an interpretation of the Torah portion? With a goal of helping a person with disabilities feel accepted and comfortable, highlighting his or her special gifts can provide the mechanism for celebrating his or her Jewish identity. For example, one bat mitzvah girl, who is an elective mute, displayed an original painting that expressed her feelings about her Torah portion.

Modify Format of Ceremony

Once these questions have been answered, the family should determine their goal for the event. What will make it meaningful to each of them? What will make this a "real" bar or bat mitzvah for them? Who should participate and how? Who should be there to share the experience?

The cooperation of the synagogue's professionals is critical to a successful experience. Must all bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies follow the same formula in order to be acceptable? Can the ceremony be shortened, individualized, or carried out in a completely unique manner? How willing are the professionals to help plan and expedite such a service? How supportive will the congregation be of a ceremony that is different from the usual?

The ceremony itself should be designed to take advantage of the child's strengths and, as much as possible, to avoid problems. How predictable is this person's behavior? What will make him or her comfortable or uncomfortable?

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Becca Hornstein

Becca Hornstein is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Council for Jews with Special Needs, Inc. in Phoenix, Arizona.