bar mitzvah

Original article published in the JNS

Ronen Bar-Abraham, director of Adraba-The Shirley Lowy Center for Children with Disabilities, says it was founded “to fulfill an unmet need in Israel.”

Two 13-year-olds with autism—surrounded by family, teachers, guests and Rabbi Mikie Goldstein—celebrated their b’nai mitzvah during a special Thursday-morning musical Shacharit service at the Adat Shalom–Emanuel in Rehovot, Israel. Aviv and Yair put on tefillin, carried the Torah scroll, and recited the Torah blessings and prayers with the help of an augmented communication device. The bar mitzvah took place on May 26 as part of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement’s Adraba center, which has been developing and conducting bar and bat mitzvah programs for children with disabilities for more than 25 years now. To date, more than 5,000 children have taken part in the program.

It continues to be a busy season for participants in the program. From Akko to Haifa, Karmiel, Kfar Vradim and the egalitarian area of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, 100-plus teens with disabilities from families of all backgrounds and levels of observance will celebrate b’nai mitzvah at 20 venues between March 24 and the end of June.

According to Ronen Bar-Abraham, director of Adraba-The Shirley Lowy Center for Children With Disabilities, the bar and bat mitzvah program was founded “to fulfill an unmet need in Israel.” Bar-Abraham is proud of the program and its commitment to serve the needs of all Israelis. “The Masorti movement believes that every Jew with disabilities or challenges is a full and equal member of Klal Yisrael and should be included in a minyan as is every Jew.”

Aviv carries the Torah at his bar mitzvah in Rehovot, Israel, on May 26, 2022. Photo by Howard Blas.

Goldstein, the English-born rabbi who moved to Israel in 1989 and has been leading Adat Shalom-Emanuel since 2014, appreciates the unique nature of the program. “It is a rare chance for these children and families to celebrate a Jewish life-cycle event they might not otherwise have thought possible,” he said.

He appreciates that the students come from “all sorts of religious and non-religious backgrounds—from Orthodox to completely secular to celebrate together” and believes “the program shows that pluralism can exist.”

‘It is inspiring every time’

The special day started with Bar-Abraham welcoming the 40 family members, teachers and guests and putting them at ease. “Shalom and mazal tov to all who enter! You can sit where you want—men and women together.” He also reminded excited guests to hold off on showering the b’nai mitzvah with candy until they finish leading the service and reading from the Torah.

Adraba staff shared a PowerPoint and video of the program, which described the curriculum and preparation process for the more than 200 students enrolled in 30 Israeli schools.

Ruth Rubin Lavie, who came on aliyah in 1978, began playing “Hinei Mah Tov” on her guitar. She is a congregant, b’nai mitzvah teacher and singer who regularly volunteers her musical talents by accompanying on guitar at the services. “It is inspiring every time to see the happiness of kids coming to the Torah and of parents’ kvelling,” she said.

Guests used the red, hardcover B’chol D’rachecha accessible siddur, for which the Adraba Center and the Masorti Movement have received awards from the Shalem Foundation (2010) and JDC-Ashalim. The siddur utilizes simple explanations, various colors and fonts, and picture icons that assist those unable to read standard Hebrew.

Ruth Rubin Lavie played “Hinei Mah Tov” at the ceremony on May 26, 2022. Photo by Howard Blas.

Throughout the entire service, Aviv and Yair’s teachers patiently stood next to them with smiles on their faces. The teachers helped their students remain on task and facilitated student reading and singing with their augmented communication devices.

The service kicked off with the young men offering personal blessings. “Thank you, God, for giving me the ability to smile and be with my family.”

Goldstein and the teachers consistently modeled sensitivity, respect and inclusivity for all participants and guests. Prior to the central Amidah prayer, Goldstein asked: “Those who are able, please stand.” When the b’nai mitzvah boys had difficulties remaining at the bimah, a staff member seamlessly walked with them around the room until they were ready to return to the service.

Each boy was called to the Torah by name to recite the Torah blessings. Goldstein served as the Torah reader. Yair’s mother, Iris Elkobi, addressed her son, saying “despite the challenges, you are a leader in all areas. … Your dream is to be a millionaire—always listen to your dreams!”

Iris added, “This program is so special. It is a big mitzvah. The bar mitzvah is important for him and for the family, too.”

His father, Chaim, is proud of all five of his sons, but noted that this bar mitzvah was particularly miragesh, “emotional” in Hebrew. He elaborated, “It was so special seeing Yair in his tefillin. Today is a d’var kadosh—‘a holy event.’ ”

Yair reads Hebrew at his bar mitzvah in Rehovot, Israel, on May 26, 2022. Photo by Howard Blas.

Yair’s school bus driver, Aron, grew emotional when he described the significance of the bar mitzvah. “This program is more important than tanks and missiles,” he said, acknowledging the amount of money Israel spends on defense while also emphasizing the need for ongoing funding to support the b’nai mitzvah program.

At the end of the service, Yair and Aviv received their own personalized copy of the siddur, as well as personalized blessings from parents and teachers. The ceremony took place under a large tallit. The young men were then showered with candy, lovingly tossed by kvelling guests.

The celebration continued with a festive breakfast of bread, salads, cakes and pastries outside in the synagogue’s specially decorated garden.

As the guests said their final “Mazal Tovs,” Adir and Yair left to return to school. The Adraba staff now turned their attention to the 20 students looking forward to celebrating their same milestone before the school year ends. In a few months, it will be time to begin preparing even more Israelis with disabilities for their special days.

The red, hardcover accessible siddur, used by the boys at the ceremony in Rehovot, Israel. Photo by Howard Blas.
The bar mitzvah venue, Adat Shalom–Emanuel in Rehovot, Israel, on May 26, 2022. Photo by Howard Blas.
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It is a job to celebrate with 3 families in two weeks–all close on the Jewish Calendar to the holiday of Purim. Two will be on Shabbat in synagogues with the appropriate precautions (masks, distancing, aliyahs from behind plexiglas, limits on numbers of guests, “to go” kiddush boxes); one will be family only in a home with me and Zoom-producer in person and with masks–and in costumes for Purim megillah reading.

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Original Article in Chabad.org:

Sometimes what happens in Vegas shouldn’t just stay in Vegas. Levi Harlig’s extraordinary bar mitzvah is one of them.

Levi gave a flawless reading of Parshat Naso, the longest Torah portion of the year, and delivered a Chassidic discourse in Yiddish and Hebrew last Shabbat morning at Chabad of Green Valley/Henderson in Las Vegas. The following evening, the 13-year-old sang and drummed for three hours with entertainer Avraham Fried at a community-wide celebration at the Four Seasons Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip.

That would be an exciting experience for any bar mitzvah boy. But for members of the community who have known Levi since birth, the accomplishment was nearly miraculous.

When Levi was 15 months old, his mother, Chaya Harlig, co-director with her husband, Rabbi Mendy Harlig, of Chabad of Green Valley/Henderson, realized that something was not quite right about their son. “He wasn’t making eye contact or following directions. We got him into all kinds of therapies right away—occupational therapy, speech therapy and more.” Three months later, the Harligs learned that Levi had autism. He has difficulties with personal space and reading social cues, and he often focuses on topics of interest to him but not necessarily to other people.

“My husband took it a lot harder than I did,” said Chaya. “I think women have more bitachon [faith]. We set out to make Levi the best Levi he can be!”

In response to her husband’s concerns about where Levi would go to school, whether he would have a bar mitzvah and other issues related to Levi’s future, Chaya reassured him. “He will have a bar mitzvah, he will get married, and he will use his talents. He is really special!”

Harlig quickly realized that his wife was right. Levi has extraordinary talents, including perfect pitch and what his parents refer to as “audiographic memory.” Levi is able to remember essentially anything he hears, including songs, speeches, conversations he has heard in synagogue or around the Shabbat table.

The bar mitzvah boy shares Torah learning at the celebration. (Photo: Norina Kaye)

The bar mitzvah boy shares Torah learning at the celebration. (Photo: Norina Kaye)

Rabbi Harlig began including Levi in the life of the synagogue from an early age. “Each Yom Kippur, I would give my talk and then find a song in English connected to the sermon for Levi to sing. There was not a dry eye in the shul!” Levi regularly leads the congregation in prayer, and he greets congregants by name, upon arrival—often in a loud voice from up on the bimah!

Levi’s important role in the synagogue has allowed members of the community to become comfortable with a person with disabilities. “Levi is bringing people into the Henderson Chabad. He has a warm smile and welcomes everyone!” reports his father.

Wayne Krygier, a member of the Las Vegas Chabad community since relocating from Canada in 1989, concurs. “Levi is the heart and soul of the synagogue. The shul is his life—he feels so at home here!” Krygier jokes that Levi’s greeting everyone in a loud voice as they enter serves as an incentive to arrive on time.

Dr. George Harouni, a local dentist and regular Chabad of Henderson attendee, observes, “People are now accustomed to seeing someone like Levi. He has been part of the community since birth; no one thinks of him as being different.”

When Levi’s bar mitzvah approached, his grandfather, Rabbi Kalman Shor, who also serves as a rabbi for the Chabad of Henderson community, taught him Torah cantillation and sat with him for regular practice sessions. He notes that Levi’s musical talents made his job “much, much easier—once he learns it, he remembers it.” The congregation was clearly moved at the bar mitzvah. “They thought it was beautiful and emotional. And they were impressed that he made no mistakes.”

Jeff Berkow, a retired South African-born businessman and longtime active volunteer in Chabad of Henderson reports: “Levi was flawless! He sang the trope [cantillation] like a chazzan with 30 years of experience. People were amazed!”

Singing with Avraham Fried. (Photo: Norina Kaye)

Singing with Avraham Fried. (Photo: Norina Kaye)

High Praise From a Noted Singer

Levi’s bar mitzvah celebration continued with an Avraham Fried concert, attended by 300 people, a natural choice given Fried’s musical talents and personal qualities. Harlig explains, “He is a beautiful singer, a caring person, and he always showed love for Levi. I figured people would see them sing together, love it and get inspired. They were on a high.”

Fried reflects on the special Shabbat and evening noting, “I knew this bar mitzvah would be very special and memorable but, boy, this was out of the park! Levi loves music. He sings beautifully, and has a great ear and rhythm. He knows all my songs exactly as they appear on the CD. Every musical line and harmony, every place where the song modulates, and the intros and endings, not to mention every special inflection that I sing! We sang so many songs together—Hebrew and English. Levi was conducting the orchestra and was totally in charge. I am lucky to have met Levi years ago. I’m lucky he invited me to his special celebration. I’m very happy he has such good taste in music!”

The community’s embrace of Levi and inclusion of people with disabilities extends beyond one special Shabbat. The Harligs and the community dream of making Chabad of Green Valley/Henderson the “central address” in Las Vegas for including people with disabilities. “Going forward, we hope to continue showing the importance of inclusion, which Chabad has been doing for many years—unconditional love for all humans,” says Harlig.

Father and grandfather listen to the bar mitzvah boy. (Photo: Norina Kaye)

Father and grandfather listen to the bar mitzvah boy. (Photo: Norina Kaye)

Harouni is excited about Chabad’s potential to become even more welcoming to people with disabilities. “Inclusion will be a great addition to our shul. We could be a real center to offer people with disabilities a sense of belonging and an opportunity to be a part of the community.”

Berkow, who assists Harlig in running Chabad, proudly notes, “I want our Chabad to be theshul of inclusion, the place that caters to people with special needs and where inclusion is the centerpiece.” He also hopes Chabad of Green Valley/Henderson will serve as a satellite to the already successful Friendship Circle 15 miles to the north.

Chaya Harlig notes that Chabad recently purchased land, and future plans include Levi’s Place, where people can come for homework help, tutoring, programming and friendship. “We will have a community center serving many families. We will be inclusive and work together with all children on all levels.” She continues to hear of the impact that Levi has had on the Las Vegas Jewish community. “Because of him, people are becoming more religious, closer to the synagogue and Hashem.” She notes that she knows other shluchim families with children with disabilities, and that Chabad offers resources and support.

(Photo: Norina Kaye)

(Photo: Norina Kaye)

Inclusion Initiative a Welcome Partner

Rabbi Harlig has found a natural partner in his mission towards greater inclusion the Ruderman Chabad Inclusion Initiative (RCII), directed by Dr. Sarah Kranz-Ciment. RCII is dedicated to building on the philosophy and mission of Chabad-Lubavitch by providing Chabad communities around the globe the education and resources they need to advance inclusion of people with disabilities. RCII engages Chabad’s network of resources to create a culture of inclusion so that all Jews feel welcomed, supported and valued throughout their entire lifecycle.

RCII is producing a song, a music video and an inclusive mural that shows that everyone belongs. It has also developed an an online bar and bat mitzvah guide, titled “Practical Ideas for Inclusive Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.”

Kranz-Ciment is proud of the work of the Harligs, their community and of Levi’s bar mitzvah, which she notes was “an opportunity to publicly show and make a statement about his many talents.” She continues, “Every Jewish soul is meaningful, and is obligated to be Jewish in the best way he or she can. The Rebbe said, ‘Your birthday is the day Hashem decided the world can’t exist without you. Inclusion is a chance to bring this to the forefront and show that what each person can do is valuable.’ All of us have a place in Judaism.”

(Photo: Norina Kaye)

(Photo: Norina Kaye)
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Originally published on Chabad.org

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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