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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Preparation that is site specific can be very helpful on the big day. Decide where the service will be held and try to practice in that environment. Perhaps the synagogue is not the optimal place; the person's home or a room at his or her school may be more comfortable and less distracting. Wherever the ceremony will be held, it is helpful to schedule some teaching sessions at the site so that the ceremony will not take place in an unfamiliar and, therefore, overwhelming environment.

Some children will manage better if the ceremony is as brief as possible, and does not coincide with a regular congregational service or other communal event. Then, the rabbi can stop or modify the service if the child becomes overstimulated or anxious. One rabbi, knowing that a young man's attention span was approximately 15 minutes long, was prepared to finish the ceremony quickly and announce to the assembled guests that it was wonderful that they had been able to celebrate together.

The team should also identify specific stimuli that distract or overstimulate the child and plan to accommodate them. Are specific sounds upsetting? Are crowds too stimulating? Does making eye contact upset the person? The child could face away from the congregation to avoid being frightened or overstimulated by eye contact with the crowd. Are certain articles of clothing irritating? This child should wear comfortable and familiar clothing, not something new, stiff, and uncomfortable. Does the person need to stand or walk between prayers? Does he or she need to sit throughout the ceremony because alternating standing and sitting is overwhelming? Aware that one bar mitzvah boy might wander throughout the sanctuary, the rabbi explained to the congregation that the entire room was the bimah [pulpit] that day. If the people planning the ceremony can answer questions like these in advance and take the appropriate steps to make the person with disabilities feel comfortable and relaxed, the day will prove much more successful and pleasant for everyone.

The ultimate success of such a ceremony is a triumph, not only for the individuals involved, but for the entire Jewish community. The bar or bat mitzvah of a young person with a disability demonstrates vividly what Judaism is, or should be, about. The challenges are not insurmountable; it only takes the willingness to plan ahead, flexibility, and creativity. In this way, we can truly "educate each child according to his or her ability," and fulfill our obligation to provide a Jewish education for every child.

For more thoughts and insights about planning a bar/bat mitzvah for someone with special needs you may want to watch the film Praying with Lior about a boy with special needs and his family planning his bar mitzvah.

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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.