Kids who are preparing for their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs typically schedule weekly meetings with the rabbi. During these half-hour sessions, the rabbi helps each student compose a D’var Torah (or sermon)—this may be a young person’s first experience closely interpreting a biblical text and discussing it with a teacher. As the child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah date draws near, the rabbi will also likely use these weekly sessions to review and practice parts of the Shabbat service.
A less tangible but arguably just as important benefit of these weekly meetings is the bond of trust that develops between rabbi and student. This bond is essential—not just because it marks the beginning of a potentially life-long relationship, but because it makes for a much easier B’nai Mitzvah service for the young person in the spotlight that morning. 13-year-old children are some of the least composed people you will ever meet: they are painfully shy or full of false bravado—their bodies are changing faster than their brains—they have acne or tics or attention deficits or braces—and the slightest wardrobe malfunction or sidelong glance from the wrong person has the power to mortify or devastate. Having lived through the B’nai Mitzvah preparations of both of my older children and shared stories with many of their friends’ parents, I can honestly say that it is a small miracle that any 7th grader makes it through a B’nai Mitzvah service, let alone shines from the bima with the confidence and poise and good humor most all the kids display. They shine because they feel comfortable and safe and loved—and this is due in no small part to the time Rabbi Alex spends getting to know them.
As we thought about Martin’s Bar Mitzvah preparations, we did not factor in weekly meetings with the rabbi, much as we did not consider setting Martin up with a Bar Mitzvah tutor. After all, Martin is not going to be able to read from the Torah or give a D’var Torah speech. He is not able to read Hebrew or have conversations with the rabbi about his Torah portion or Haftarah. He is not able to have conversations at all—at least not the way his peers do—about school or sports or girls or why his parents won’t let him wear basketball shorts to his Bar Mitzvah service.
It didn’t make sense to do it, but for some reason I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I kept coming back to our big goals—for Martin to feel Jewish and at home in the synagogue—and I knew that a relationship with a rabbi is a key component of these feelings for most of us. Martin’s peers will build this relationship the traditional way, but shouldn’t there be a way for Martin to develop a similar bond in a different way?
So I proposed that we set up a weekly session with Rabbi Alex. I didn’t give the rabbi much direction. I have learned from experience that the very best way to get to know Martin is to spend lots of time just being with him. Not talking. Not trying to get him to engage or answer questions or make eye contact. Just be together. If Martin is free to do what behavioral specialists call “preferred tasks” (as opposed to “non-preferred” ones), he will relax and focus and eventually say something to bring his companion into his circle. He may ask for help. He may say something and await an echo of what he says. If his companion plays along, repeating what Martin says and/or helping him when requested, Martin will turn to him, look at him, and sometimes, if the conditions are just right, he will laugh and laugh, a wonderful contagious laughter few can resist.
This, I thought, is the goal. A simple social bond of trust and friendship with a Jewish mentor.
So, once a week, Martin hangs out with the rabbi in his office at shul. At the first meeting, I gave Rabbi Alex a box of trains and tracks to keep in his office, and on Week Two we arrived to find the rabbi on the floor setting up a track.
“Oh, hi!” he said, “I was just playing with trains. Want to join me?”
Some weeks Martin brings a hand-held video game and becomes engrossed in Super Mario Bros. Some weeks he and Rabbi Alex surf the internet looking at train videos or wiki pages dedicated to electric trains. Most recently Martin wanted to watch a series of YouTube videos based on David Shannon’s book No David! Most of the time Rabbi Alex is a spectator, watching and reacting to what Martin is looking at. It may not seem like they are bonding—Martin might be so focused on YouTube he doesn’t seem to know the rabbi is there—but they are. Each week Martin grows more and more comfortable and Rabbi Alex becomes more and more a part of Martin’s routine—a trusted grown-up who does not make him stop watching the same YouTube video over and over again or try to talk to him. This takes some doing, as most of us use friendly inquiries and smiles to get to know other people; it is hard to do the opposite and feel connected. And even harder to wait. It takes a long time for Martin to feel comfortable enough to initiate a social interaction, much longer than most people can wait. But Rabbi Alex has been there, quietly hanging out, for weeks. As we gathered our coats to say goodbye last week, Martin suddenly stopped, walked over to Rabbi Alex, put a hand on his shoulder, and looked right at him.
“No, David! next time,” he said.