Martin’s Bar Mitzvah day is almost here. After months of weekly practice sessions and years of planning and going back to the drawing board and planning some more, we are just about ready to achieve a goal we once thought we wouldn’t even try to achieve. It’s hard now to remember the days when Martin couldn’t tolerate sitting in services, when we spent most of every Shabbat service (when we would show up at all) walking the halls or camped out by the train table in the religious school wing. Back then it was difficult to imagine that Martin would ever be able or willing to participate with us on a Shabbat morning, and we wondered if maybe we should accept that a traditional Bar Mitzvah was an unrealistic goal for our autistic son.
As readers of this blog know, we set aside our reservations and began working with Martin in hopes that one day, like other Jewish kids his age, he would recite an Aliyah on a Shabbat morning after his 13th birthday. This small, manageable goal brought everyone to the table: rabbis, teachers, teacher’s aides, and friends. Everyone had ideas and suggestions. Martin’s weekly sessions with Merril and with Rabbi Alex created a routine for him and allowed office and maintenance staff at the shul to get to know him. Our monthly “Martin Shabbats” helped familiarize Martin with the Shabbat service and made him and everyone else more comfortable. Our small, manageable goal grew into a community effort.
The Partial Torah
At one of our early planning meetings, we discussed a topic that all B’nai Mitzvah families discuss: should our child carry the Torah during the procession? At Beth El we have a lighter-weight Torah (the Inclusion Torah) designed specifically to make it possible for people with a wide range of abilities to carry it, but even this Torah is too weighty (both physically and ritually) for Martin. In many families (our own included), an adult family member carries the Torah for the B’nai Mitzvah child, and we were prepared to go with this option. Rabbi Alex had another idea.
Beth El recently inherited a number of ritual objects from a synagogue in Steubenville, Ohio. Among these objects are two “partial” Torah scrolls. Part of a set, each containing one of the five books of Moses, these much smaller, much lighter scrolls look like miniature Torahs. One of them is as light as a prayer book and carries the same ritual significance (that is, if Martin would drop it, it would be just like dropping a prayer book, not like dropping an actual Torah). Rabbi Alex suggested that Martin carry this smaller scroll in the procession.
Merril and Martin started practicing with the Partial Torah, and while the weight of the scroll was just right, the Torah cover on it was too large. Martin would hold onto the cover—instead of the wooden finials—and this caused some problems. So one afternoon I sought help from Beth and Debbie (in addition to their work in the Beth El office, both are accomplished with needle and thread). We discussed ways to reduce the size of the cover or perhaps create an elastic belt to hold it on more tightly. I left the experts to figure out just what to do, but the next time I saw Debbie, she had another idea.
She’d found some fabric online—black with colorful trains—and she asked if it would be ok for her to make a new cover for the Partial Torah. Of course I agreed. Not only did she make a beautiful train cover, lined with a heavy quilted fabric and fitted perfectly, she asked Jay to create a new wooden frame for the top of the mantle—the old one was cut from a piece of heavy cardboard. The result is extraordinary.
A traditional Shabbat service in a Conservative synagogue is a long service—about three hours long—separated into several smaller services that run back-to-back. A typical B’nai Mitzvah child leads two, sometimes three of these smaller services, including the Torah Service, during which he or she reads from the Torah, recites the Haftarah, and delivers a D’var Torah (or sermon). The most significant moment during a B’nai Mitzvah service, however, is the few minutes during which the child, who at 13 is now a “Jewish adult,” recites his or her first Aliyah. This is the blessing that is recited before and after a Torah reading and is the only ritual reserved only for Jewish adults. This is the moment that signifies an important rite of passage.
We’ve known from the start that Martin’s Bar Mitzvah service would have to be a group effort. Once we decided to work towards an Aliyah for Martin, I imagined that we would call upon family and friends and Martin’s classmates to lead the parts of the service that he could not. I pictured a typical Shabbat morning service with lots of participants and a special few minutes during which Martin would recite his first Aliyah. Rabbi Alex, however, had another idea.
Using large visuals and transliterations, Merril created a script for Martin to use when he recites the Aliyah. He mastered this so quickly that she moved on to other prayers—soon he was reciting the Sh’ma, the tallis blessing, the blessings over handwashing and wine and bread. An abbreviated Torah service emerged. Wanting Martin to feel good about his accomplishment—to feel and understand something of what his peers feel and understand on their special days, Rabbi Alex suggested that we figure out a way to end the Shabbat service as soon as Martin’s part is done—to go right from Martin’s part to lunch (where Martin’s favorite foods will be waiting). To do this, we’d have to re-organize the service, something that has never been done before at Beth El.
This is what we’ve done. On Martin’s Bar Mitzvah day, the Shabbat service will begin as usual, but we will pause the Torah service about halfway through, finish the rest of the services that follow it, and then return to complete the Torah service with Martin leading. This will set Martin up for success we hope. It will mitigate some of the sensory overload that comes with sitting through a long service and allow him to focus on his task with a reward in mind (lunch!).
Martin’s Bar Mitzvah service will indeed be a group effort. Friends and family will lead parts of the service, chant Torah, and recite the Haftarah. Martin’s peers—his Steam Team—will support him and lead prayers as a group with him and on his behalf. The service itself will be designed to accommodate him, to acknowledge and embrace his way of being in the world, and we will all share that world, with its trains and pizza and macaroni and cheese and cookies for dessert.