Autism Is No Barrier for Munich Boy’s Bar Mitzvah

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Chabad emissaries’ unique celebration and video for their son with special needs

When the Diskin family was contemplating a move from the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., to Munich in the late 1980s, there was no Chabad presence in Germany, the Berlin Wall was still standing, and they were instructed by the Rebbe’s secretary to get their parents’ permission before considering the move. Thirty years later, Rabbi Yisroel and Chana Diskin speak fluent German, provide for the many needs of the diverse Jewish community of Munich and oversee 19 Chabad centers around the country. The Diskins have also been open with the community about the personal and practical challenges they have encountered during the last 13 years with their youngest son, Zalman, a young man with autism and hearing impairments.

The Diskins were blessed with five children in the first decade of marriage. They always wanted more and began to lose hope that they would have additional children. Then, children numbers six and seven were born back to back. “We were euphoric,” reports Chana Diskin. “When our sixth child, Zalman, was born, the whole community came together for his bris.”

When Zalman was 5 months old, he contracted meningitis, and the Diskins began an unchartered, challenging journey—one that involved a great deal of learning and soul-searching. They noticed a hearing loss at 16 months; he had a cochlear implant after that. At 3 years of age, Zalman began to display symptoms of autism. “We were very determined to do whatever we could to help him recover,” says Chana Diskin.

The Diskins had to juggle their roles as community leaders and as parents who were dealing with the many issues related to Zalman. Chana Diskin processes difficult situations through talking with friends and people close to her. She frequently discussed Zalman in various classes she led; and in “a small, intimate women’s group,” one participant boldly asked, “Did you think you were playing with fire, forcing G‑d’s hand and wanting more kids?”

She feels it took until Zalman was 9 or 10 to come to terms with the fact that “this is who he is and who our family is.” Yet her questions and concerns continued. “When Zalman was 12, it dawned on me that he won’t be able to say a brachah [blessing] or count in a minyan [the quorum of 10 Jewish men needed for public prayer]. It struck a bad chord in me. I was very upset; it insulted me!”

Diskin remained convinced that Zalman understood a lot more about being Jewish than people realized. “We are fascinated by his connection to Yiddishkeit, on his level. Zalman understands about candles, Kiddush and challah on Friday night. He knows to shut off his iPod when we light Shabbat candles and understands that he can’t watch videos on Shabbat. He also knows that he can’t eat non-kosher food in his German public school.”

She and her husband were also torn about whether or not to hold a bar mitzvah ceremony for Zalman. She was struggling with practical and theological issues. “Would it be appropriate to spend so much money on a boy some would think ‘doesn’t get it?’ And it bothered her that it was questionable whether or not Zalman could count in a minyan.

A Beautiful Video Sends a Powerful Message

About half a year before Zalman turned 13, the Diskins approached a good friend and professional filmmaker who noted that there are not many Jewish children with disabilities in the Munich Jewish community. “The filmmakers felt it was important that we film and celebrate Zalman, with all of his imperfections. They felt it would send a strong message.”

The filmmakers, Paula and Daniel Targownik, wanted to make a full-length documentary. After many conversations with the Diskins, the decision was made to keep it shorter. “We didn’t know how Zalman would respond.” The Diskins were ultimately interviewed separately for the film and shared their very different perspectives. “I shared my struggle, why I was upset with G‑d,” reports Chana Diskin. “My husband spoke about how we never signed a contract with Hashem that all would go according to our plan. Both messages are correct—we can struggle, and we can accept.”

The Diskins began to plan the bar mitzvah, hoping that Zalman would be able to learn to wrap tefillin, even though they weren’t sure he would show up at his own bar mitzvah.

As the bar mitzvah video captures, Zalman can exhibit unpredictable and difficult behavior. For example, he started the school year with a period of refusing to get on the bus and with hitting others. When he was younger, he flushed a very expensive cochlear processor down the toilet.

Four months before Zalman’s 13th birthday, the Diskins had an idea—they would have his beloved Singaporean teacher, Lynn, teach Zalman about tefillin. “We know it takes Zalman time to learn things. Lynn had been successful in solving the school bus-refusal issue earlier in the year through creating a step-by-step picture book for getting Zalman on the bus. She offered to make a picture book for tefillin. Although at first I was skeptical, it worked!”

Father and son say the Shema Yisrael prayer.
Father and son say the Shema Yisrael prayer.

Lynn was up for the challenge. Would Zalman rise to the occasion?

Lynn asked Rabbi Diskin to create a video on how to wrap tefillin, which she used as a basis for a step-by-step book for Zalman. She illustrated two boxes—one representing the head and one representing the arm. Zalman learned that each has a home—in the tefillin bag—and does not belong on the floor.

She started on the shel rosh (head) since it was less sensory. Then, she slowly moved to his arm. They practiced with a plastic tefillin prototype since Zalman was likely to throw it. “On the day of the filming, Lynn told my husband that Zalman was ready! I didn’t expect it,” said Chana Diskin.

She knows her son well. “Once he starts a task, he needs to complete it. It was like magic. When they started filming, we pointed to the pictures, and he followed the step-by-step directions, in order. It was like a miracle!”

On Sunday morning, Jan. 21, 2018, members of the Munich Jewish community began to arrive at the bar mitzvah. Pairs of tefillin were on hand for those who wanted to wrap in Zalman’s honor. Transliterated siddurim were available so all would feel comfortable. As the time for the recital of the Shema neared, Zalman was escorted into the service, wearing his tefillin. “He kept them on until va’ed [the final word of the second line after Shema]!” says his very proud mother. Everyone was visibly moved. Then, he got frustrated and left.” The community continued to celebrate with delicious food and music under a tent pitched for the special occasion.

Celebrating the event with the Munich Jewish community.
Celebrating the event with the Munich Jewish community.

Zalman’s bar mitzvah is inspiring and moving. It also beautifully illustrated the many ways to mark becoming bar mitzvah. When most of the Diskin boys became bar mitzvah, they celebrated by delivering a deep discourse from the Rebbe and by reading from the Torah. “My husband is a baal koreh [Torah reader] and wanted his sons to learn to read from the Torah,” reports Chana Diskin. Some sons also led the shacharit (morning) prayer service.

“Since one of our sons was getting married a week later in California, we didn’t have much family at the bar mitzvah. I sent the video to members of our family.”

Her sister, Rivkah Slonim, who is a Chabad emissary at Binghamton University in New York, recalls, “Although the video was without English subtitles, I understood enough to know that this work had potentially a huge audience and could be profoundly impactful.”

The video of Zalman’s bar mitzvah has been hailed as an extraordinarily moving and poignant demonstration that each child and each bar mitzvah is unique. The Diskins and Zalman have come to serve as an important model for families of children with disabilities on their own special journey.

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