“Not a man of words”: Martin’s Bar Mitzvah Year

Categories: Inclusion, Not a man of words, Religious School

Moses said to the Lord, “I beseech You, O Lord. I am not a man of words, neither from yesterday nor from the day before yesterday, nor from the time You have spoken to Your servant, for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.”     Exodus 4:10

When Martin was 2 years old, we noticed that he was still not talking.  He did not respond when we called his name.  He was not interested in playing with his peers and instead bolted away whenever I released him from his stroller. It’s fair to say that I did not see Martin’s deficits clearly then—he is our third child, and I knew from experience that most delays and behavioral problems resolve themselves. All babies eventually grow into sullen teenagers we hardly recognize as the stubborn diaper-wearers or fussy eaters or reluctant communicators they once were, right? With Martin, though, something was different.  I arranged for a speech therapist to work with him once a week in our home, expecting Martin to enjoy the games and gradually come out of his shell.  Instead, he actively resisted even the smallest attempt to encourage him to speak.  He grew to hate farm animals, with their moos and baas and neighs. He turned his back on our smiling invitations to play and would not say any words—not ball, not Martin, not Mom or Dad.

It probably should not have been a surprise to me when, 6 months later, an evaluating psychiatrist at the Child Development Unit diagnosed Martin with Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD-NOS) and explained that this meant he was on the autism spectrum. In fact, I was completely unprepared for the diagnosis and overwhelmed when a graduate student intern began advising me about early intervention programs and Medicaid loopholes and wraparound services.  Only one question came to my mind, and I asked it:  “Will he go to kindergarten?”  The psychiatrist replied, “I don’t know.”

That was 10 years ago. Martin did receive early intervention therapies and wraparound services. He has worked with many speech pathologists, occupational therapists, and behavioral specialists.  With help from countless therapeutic support staff people, he was able to attend preschool. He went to kindergarten—and has attended public school ever since—because of a wide array of special education services available to him there. Learning to understand Martin’s autism, to engage with him and teach him to navigate the neurotypical world, has been a journey of discovery for our whole family.

To be honest, Martin’s Jewish education was not at the top of our list as we confronted the challenges of raising him during those early years. It was hard for us to imagine how Martin would manage a Hebrew School curriculum when he was still struggling with basic social communication in English. Beth El’s religious education program, like most others, did not have special education teachers or an adapted curriculum or any of the built-in supports available at Martin’s public school.  In addition, we knew that as Martin grew older, the developmental gulf between him and his classmates would widen, making social interaction more difficult. We could not imagine him ever leading a traditional Bar Mitzvah service.

And yet we knew that we wanted him to have a Bar Mitzvah. That goal became clear when we realized that what we want for Martin is not to be able to do all the things that other B’nai Mitzvah kids can do—to recite all the prayers and give a D’var Torah speech and invite all of his friends to a big party—but simply to feel Jewish.  To identify himself as part of a Jewish community.  Martin’s Hebrew name is Moshe, and like Moses, Martin is “heavy of mouth” and unsure about how to communicate with others. His Bar Mitzvah service will give him an opportunity—the first of many—to feel like he belongs not just to our family, but to his larger Jewish family.

In a series of blog posts over the next nine months I hope to share our family’s Bar Mitzvah journey with you. This journey would not be possible without Rabbi Amy’s support and creativity, Merril Nash’s dedication to teaching, Rabbi Alex’s guidance and good humor, and the kindness of Martin’s seventh grade friends—his “Steam Team.” Together we have created our own adapted religious school curriculum for Martin, and together we will support him as he celebrates a great milestone in his Jewish life.

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