Written by Dori Frumin Kirshner, Matan’s Executive Director Another invitation to a bar mitzvah arrived in our mailbox. I envisioned a typical service followed by the usual photo montage and candle-lighting ceremony with rhyming stanzas.
But when I opened the envelope and began to read, I realized this was not just any bar mitzvah invitation. This was an invitation to celebrate the bar mitzvah of Hunter, a 13 year old boy with Autism. So, what would make this bar mitzvah different from all others?
The invite was laid out differently. It was clear that this service would be fashioned for Hunter, so he could connect with our tradition in a way that resonated with him.
The invitation noted that this Autism-Friendly Bar Mitzvah Service (and subsequent celebration) would:
- Encourage kids to play or read quietly
- Allow snacks and drinks in the pews
- Encourage a free-flow for guests to come and go as shpilkes set in
- Expect kids and parents to sit together
- Entail a shorter service
- Offer tons of activities for families to enjoy
Even the usual explanation of the bar mitzvah was customized: “bar mitzvah, translated as ‘Son of Commandments,’ is usually held when a boy is 13 years old and signifies the beginning of Jewish adulthood. In this case, we celebrate all of Hunter’s progress and successes to date, and begin to look forward to what will come next.”
When the first words of the service were uttered, the tears began to flow. When I looked around me, I saw I was in good company. The Rabbi called everyone together and set the stage for the experience about to take place. He said:
“Today we are all here to wish Hunter a ‘Happy Bar Mitzvah.’ To a lot of people, happiness is complicated. To Hunter, it is the simple things that make him happy. He loves to splash around in the pool on a hot summer day, the feel of the waves in the ocean as they break upon him, the taste of pizza, playing on his computer, helping out at the animal shelter. When he plays games, he doesn’t care if he wins or loses … he just loves to play. Hunter has the greatest laugh. It is a whole-hearted belly laugh. It makes YOU want to laugh. At the very least, it makes you smile. It serves as a reminder to all of us that happiness should not be complicated. Happiness is simply anything that you love. And we all love Hunter.”
The structure of the Amidah, which I have said countless times, penetrated my soul at this service:
“We praise You, O God, for the generations that have come before us; for the Abrahams and Sarahs and Isaacs and Rebeccas, and Jacobs and Rachels and Leahs, for the Hunters too. Through us all you reveal your love of Torah. Through us all, the generations flow, from parent to child. Israel lives, and our people live.”
The passage included all of God’s creations, not just the ones for whom legends are told. Everyone is worthy of a story, a history, a bar mitzvah. These prayers recognized and celebrated that notion. These prayers made me feel more connected to my religion than I can ever remember.
At most b’nai mitzvah services I have attended, the target has been drawn and the child “performed,” aiming for the center of that bulls-eye with varying degrees of success. Hunter’s bar mitzvah was an example of the bulls-eye being drawn around the child – and it fit so much better.
In Jewish education, we tend to place inordinate effort on attempting to fit students into “the box” of what a bar or bat mitzvah, educational success or social engagement should look like. If we are all different, shouldn’t the boxes be less uniform and more adjustable to individual needs and strengths? Isn’t that the purpose of invoking the different names of our ancestry? Demonstrating that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah and Hunter…and you and I, all connect differently? I never experienced this in a more profound way than while praying at Hunter’s bar mitzvah. I went to the bar mitzvah expecting to be moved, and I ended up transformed.
At the end of the service, we read…
“Hunter taught us: The journey can be just as exciting as the destination…He has taught us that although people live different lives, that does not mean that they all can not have wonderful lives.”
That is the lesson that filled my heart and my plate this Thanksgiving weekend.
For anyone interested in accessing Hunter’s service booklet as a resource, we are proud to share it here: Hunter Elkins Cong version 9.3.14