Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thou shalt help those with special needs find their best place among us!

Paul Kipnes is the rabbi at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA and my classmate at the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at HUC-JIR (Class of '91). He has a terrific Blog called Or Am I? Below is his post from yesterday. It sends a very strong message of inclusion which I echo. And he asks an important question: Who else makes it a point to meet the learners with special needs where they are? And I am asking not only about Bar/Bat Mitzvah, but also about other points of connections. 

For congregational schools: Is your school willing to include any child in your established classes if they are included in their weekday school? Are you willing and able to provide paraprofessionals or madrikhim to shadow them if that is how they best learn? Is your school willing to create stand alone learning for those students for whom inclusion is not the best answer? What about physical needs? Is there a ramp or lift on the bima? Large print siddurim and a hearing assist system? Do you have an elevator if the synagogue has upper floors? There are more things we could be doing.

In the Torah, Amalek is considered the ultimate in evil. He was no the only king to attack the Israelites, but he gets the biggest black hat because he ordered his troops to attack the rear of the Israelite column. that is where Moses had positioned the non-combatants, which surely included those whose physical and other abilities prevented them from being effective fighters. We can assume that if they had people with special needs (it is possible that such people didn't survive long as slaves in the ancient near East) they were among those to suffer first at Amaleck's hands. The message is clear to me: that it is a compelling positive mitzvah: Thou shalt help those with special needs find their best place among us!

I am proud of Paul, Doug and their congregation for what they do and what Paul told that parent. I am equally proud that my congregation can answer yes to all of the questions I listed above. I am proud that two of our madrikhim (one is my son) work closely with two young men with autism in a stand alone classroom and that we we have a special needs coordinator who monitors all of our learners, helping avocational teachers learn how best to respond to those learners' needs. 

Please comment to this post by sharing the ways in which your school/congregation/institution works to meet the needs of learners (children and adults) who encounter the world differently from the statistical mean. And now for Paul's post: 


I received a message recently about a parent of a child with special needs. It seems that this parent was unsure that the special needs child could ever become a Bar Mitzvah. Here's my response to the parent:
Recently, Cantor Doug Cotler and I officiated at two different B'nai Mitzvah services of children with special needs. In each case, the parents were sure that their child would never read from Torah, lead the service or become a Bar Mitzvah. Like the few dozen other such families who thought the same, they were overwhelmed and blown away when their child led the service, read from Torah and gave a speech. There wasn't a dry eye in the house!
At Congregation Or Ami, we are committed to the idea that any child of a member who works to the best of his or her ability, has the privilege and right to a Jewish learning experience and to becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. The children participate in a real service, just one that is subtly tailored to each child's unique abilities (which, by the way, is basically what we do for EVERY child). 

What does that mean?
  • Maybe he will read Torah but not Haftarah.
  • Maybe he will sing the prayers he knows and explain others.

  • Maybe his service will be before only 15-20 of the closest and then there will be a bigger party.
  • Maybe he will only chant one verse of Torah per aliyah.
  • Maybe his Torah portion will be the V'ahavta prayer, which he will already know by heart (the V'ahavta in the prayerbook, comes from the Torah).
  • Maybe... maybe... maybe...
The keys to it all are three interlocking elements:

  1. The commitment of the Temple to say "YES, this CAN and WILL happen."
  2. The creativity of our B'nai Mitzvah tutor Diane Townsend to figure out ways to get each child to do his/her best. Diane works with me to tailor the service in a way that outsiders would not realize is tailored, but makes your child shine brightly.
  3. The willingness of the parents to let go of their sense that it cannot happen, but instead to believe that yes, my son - just like every other Jewish boy - can become a Bar Mitzvah.

By the way, I have NEVER encountered a child with special needs (at Congregation Or Ami or at my previous synagogues) who could not and did not become a Bar/Bat Mitzvah.
I so look forward to celebrating as your son becomes a Bar Mitzvah. So don't worry. Just say to yourself, "Yes, this will happen." Then breathe...
We can talk more if you want.
Gosh, I wish we could better publicize this message. I wish that all synagogues would realize that there should be NO barriers to children with special needs, especially with regard to Jewish ritual.

Alas, we can only work in our little corner of the world...



What is happening in your corner of the world? Please post a comment and share! - Ira

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