Preparing for our son’s bar mitzvah is a coming-of-age moment for us, too

JANUARY 14, 2016 By Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer

In less than a week, my son, George, will turn 13, and like generations of Jewish boys before him, he will become a bar mitzvah. Bar mitzvah translates literally to “son of the commandments.”

Bar mitzvah (and later bat mitzvah for girls) is the ritual that signifies the transition of young child to adolescent. It’s a communal acknowledgment of a moment that can be a turbulent transition for both the child and parents. In Jewish tradition, emphasis on study and prayer means that a young person undertakes a rite of passage by stretching and showing his ability to read from the Torah (the Jewish holy scripture), lead prayers before the community, take on a meaningful social action project and analyze the often obscure meaning in his Torah portion.

We ask a lot of our young people.

For George, who is non-verbal and on the more severe end of the autism spectrum, his bar mitzvah service will be carefully modified. We’ve taught him how to select his Torah verses from an app on his iPad that he uses to communicate. Rather than a speech about his Torah portion, he is painting a collage about it. He will deliver prayers from his front row seat, as standing before the congregation would cause him sensory overwhelm.

As we’ve prepared for his service, I’ve questioned my choices. Should we have planned a smaller service for just the immediate family? Or flown to Israel for a bar mitzvah service there, as many families do who are not especially tied to a community?

But then I return to this reality: George is at home in our synagogue, Mishkan Shalomin Roxborough. He doesn’t have the attention to sit through a regular length service, he loves the music, joy and energy of being in the sanctuary — and so it is right that he will become bar mitzvah there.

For my husband and me, planning George’s bar mitzvah has been an opportunity for us to tell our community of family and friends more about George’s needs — and our needs. It hasn’t always been easy to ask for help and people don’t always know how best to support us. So, for this occasion, we wrote out what we need and shared it with our guests:

  • Join us in visualizing a beautiful, peaceful morning for George in which he is surrounded by love and the power of Jewish tradition.
  • George is highly distractible and people entering the sanctuary late will cause him to lose focus. Please arrive and take your seat by 9:45 a.m. We will begin the ceremony at 10 a.m.
  • When his bar mitzvah is over, he may need to go to a quiet place to decompress. Please give him space and offer good wishes after he’s had time to chill out a bit.
  • Know that life with autism is, in a word, unpredictable. It could be that George’s bar mitzvah day is an off day for him. If that’s the case, we will adapt and support him to the best of our ability. It will be what it will be. Just inviting our guests and loved ones into understanding that this is our reality is helpful and healing for us.

It feels like a coming of age moment for us, his parents, to be able to clearly articulate George’s needs and know that we have built a community of people to join us in a joyous celebration of George.

I am always available to help other parents on the autism and faith journey — be in touch!

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