I watch my 5-year-old at Jr. Congregation on Shabbat, and I am amazed. Here, in a small room with children, songs, and a teacher he knows and loves, he is comfortable and in his element. He participates, and more than that, he wants to be a leader, a teacher, and a student. He runs onto the bimah in the sanctuary for Adon Olam, and he thinks he’s leading the congregation.
Witnessing my son’s emphatic participation is huge. He was first diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum at 2 years old. Thanks to my husband and sisters, who insisted he be evaluated on the early side, he has benefited from four years of intensive therapy with dedicated and talented therapists and teachers and has made astounding strides.
Still, what comes easy for his peers (social and play skills, trying new things, transitioning activities, appropriately expressing and tempering emotions) is difficult for my son. For example, he rarely initiates play and conversation with children his age, preferring to talk to his teachers or other adults in detail about topics other 5-year-olds generally do not find interesting, like geography and maps. He craves predictability, and is often anxious about new things, wanting to see in advance pictures or videos of places we are going to or things we are doing. He still struggles with sudden changes in his schedule.
Something that is not difficult for him? Being Jewish. Like many children on the spectrum, my son has developed strong interests in certain things–Judaism being one of them.
I did not worry about his place in the Jewish community when he was a toddler. But now, as he gets older and social demands and expectations increase alongside his interest in all things Jewish, I am anxious about what the future holds for him and what he wants to learn–where does he and other children with different learning needs fit in when it comes to our Jewish community?
It is unlikely that we will be able to find a day school option for him. Sadly, that is not surprising. In an area where it is now a struggle to keep open a conservative Jewish day school–let alone one that could accommodate someone with different and developing learning styles–I do not know how realistic it is to think he could attend and receive the necessary amount of support from the brand new community day school nearby, even though the school will consider him for enrollment. I realize and understand that the situation is difficult, but I cannot help but wish it was easier to give him a fulsome Jewish education.
That is not to say that my son is not getting any Jewish education. We work on it at home by having Shabbat dinner every Friday night and going to synagogue on Shabbat morning, keeping kosher, and observing the holidays. We take him to community events. He goes to Hebrew school at our synagogue, which for now means going on Sunday mornings.
Although anxious about attending Hebrew School at the beginning of the year, he now loves going and learning so that he can participate in discussions about holidays and traditions with our family and his cousin, who attends the local day school. For our part, we minimize his anxiety by arriving a little early so he is the first one in the class and assigned a special job. Although he does not socialize much with the children in his class, his teacher and two assistants report that he is an engaged and active contributor. And last summer he attended Camp Ramah Nyack. I was thrilled that the administration and staff were true partners in making him part of their community; his eyes light up when he talks about Ramah, and he will be returning this summer and hopefully many more summers to come.
For some, this would be enough. But I want to make sure that he gets all of his questions answered and learns what he wants to learn. That is to say, at 5 he is already inquisitive, peppering us with questions not only about God and Judaism, but about the world and current events. After lights out, we often find him reading by flashlight from his children’s almanac or atlas and looking words up in a dictionary and thesaurus when necessary. I foresee a time in the near future when he will want to learn more about a holiday, or truly understand all of the prayers he is being taught to say, or learn more than a handful of Hebrew words–in other words, more than what he has time to learn in a Hebrew school curriculum. And even if there was enough time, would it be enough time for him? He might have a teacher who is less familiar or comfortable with his needs or learning style, and might not be open to using some of the resources available for teachers through organizations like Matan.
I really do not know what the future holds for my son, his Jewish education, and the Jewish community. I hope that it does not include any disappointment or closed doors when it comes to his learning. More than anything, I hope that whatever happens, he is always at home with Judaism the way he is now, at 5, dancing on the bimah.