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In Praise of Rabbis and Cantors Who Are Willing To Think Out of the Box In Working With Children With Special Needs
October 23, 2011 by Howard Blas
When I started teaching Max, it was unclear if he’d even set foot in the synagogue on his bar mitzvah day. As his parents explain in this beautiful, moving video, , Max loves “Blues Clues” and is motivated by French fries. Aliyah l’torah and d’var torah were not likely to be part of Max’s bar mitzvah--we did not know at first what a Max bar mitzvah might look like. Max is a young man with autism and limited expressive language.

After several sessions working with Max in his home—singing songs, clapping, reading stories and putting “Blues Clues” on such objects as challah, candle sticks and a kipah, we began taking Max to his synagogue, Town and Village Synagogue in Manhattan, to meet with Cantor Shayna Postman. The synagogue had never celebrated the bar mitzvah of a boy with autism, but they were open to working with Max and his family.

Shayna knew of Max’s love of music and began playing guitar for and with Max. Max enjoyed looking at Shayna’s mouth as she sang—and he had a special pick for strumming on her guitar. Together, they sang the Shema. And played drums for Halelu. Little by little, it seemed Max just might celebrate his bar mitzvah in the shul.

On the Sunday of Chol Ha Moed Sukkot, Max entered the synagogue—with his IPad and headphone. He didn’t agree to wear a tie or jacket, but he did wear nice khaki pants, a white shirt and a kipah. The cantor welcomed the guests, and his parents told Max it was time to put away the Ipad. His family presented Max with a tallis, which he wore proudly. He carried a small torah, shook a lulav and etrog (for his Sunday of Sukkot bar mitzvah), and stood at the torah offering one word answers to the cantor’s question about things he loved (“mommy, daddy, music, French fries, baby sitter Stacy…”).

While Max did not say the Torah blessings, read from the Torah or deliver a d’var torah, Max truly became bar mitzvah that day. The cantor’s love for Max was obvious to the fifty guests in attendance. She bothered to get to know Max and appreciated Max’s abilities while also understanding his limitations.

Cantor Postman delivered a beautiful mi sheberach prayer for Max. My hope and prayer is that more rabbis and cantors will continue to create caring communities where the Max’s of this world will have a Jewish home.