My son, Benji, was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder at the age of two and a half. One of the characteristics of autism is the preponderance of obsessive or perseverative interests that can become a single-minded focus, becoming all the individual wants to talk about. Common obsessive interests for kids on the spectrum include trains, sports teams, snakes, prehistoric animals, computers and electronics. My own son’s special interest is everything to do with Judaism, and particularly Jewish customs and rituals. He has had this special interest since the age of two; he is now 19 and it has never wavered. He has always been happiest when he is praying.
When he was four years old, the psychologist who used to do his annual psycho-educational assessments was interested in evaluating his imaginary play skills, since lack of appropriate imaginary play is a hallmark of autism. She asked him to role-play something with her, suggesting playing house or playing doctor as possible choices. He replied, “Let’s play synagogue. I’ll be the rabbi.” The psychologist had never been to a synagogue before and didn’t know how to play.
When we began planning for Benji’s bar mitzvah, Sandy, the woman who used to tutor him privately in Jewish Studies and had a special education background, strongly urged us to approach Sam, the man who tutored all the boys in our shul (synagogue). Sam was initially reluctant to take Benji on as a student, reiterating that he wasn’t sure how much Benji would be able to do. He told me that he wanted to audition Benji to determine if he could carry a tune and that he wouldn’t guarantee that he would take him on as a student. I wasn’t particularly phased by this, but when I mentioned it to Sandy, she indignantly responded: “This is not about being a Pavaroti. This is about a young man’s relationship with G-d!”
For Benji, his bar mitzvah lessons were the highlight of his life. Not only did he devote countless hours to practicing each and every day, he became so absorbed that when he wanted to just relax in his bedroom, he would listen to Sam chanting on his cassette player. Each week after the Sabbath service, I would observe Benji approach Sam and tell him how excited he was for his upcoming lesson the following day. Gradually, Sam would beam. After all, how many 12-year-old boys had ever told him that and meant it so sincerely?
After three months of lessons Sam reported that Benji would be able to do everything expected of a bar mitzvah boy in an Orthodox synagogue, including the entire Torah reading, the haftorah (reading from Prophets), Musaf prayer service and Dvar Torah (speech). After six months, Sam claimed that Benji was the best student he had ever taught!
At the bar mitzvah, Benji’s voice filled the sanctuary with the volume and confidence of a grown man. While it was difficult for me to see over the mechitza (partition), I heard from others that the same men who had been the most intolerant of Benji’s behavior problems when he was younger, were the very ones who were choking back the tears during his flawless Torah reading. When it was time for Sam to address him on the bimah (pulpit), he announced that tutoring Benji had been the most unparalleled experience of his 35-year career as a bar mitzvah tutor and he promptly burst into tears. If I told you that there was not a dry eye in the sanctuary, it would be a gross understatement as many congregants had tears streaming down their faces. Even our rabbi was too choked up to give his Dvar Torah, stating that he was too overcome with emotion to say a single word.
For the next two weeks my husband and I were overcome by letters, emails, cards, flowers and library books donated in Benji’s honor. Most of these were not even from our invited guests, but from members of our congregation who had watched Benji grow up. We received letters from people telling us that Benji had inspired them to overcome all of their personal challenges in their lives. His bar mitzvah was a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit.
A couple of days after the bar mitzvah, Benji left for summer camp for six weeks, returning in mid-August. The Friday morning after his return, Sam called to say that he wouldn’t be at shul the next day for Shabbat, but that he was ready to resume his more advanced Torah reading lessons with Benji that Sunday. When I informed him that we were going to take the rest of the summer off and would resume after Labor Day, I detected the disappointment in Sam’s voice. The once reluctant tutor could hardly wait to resume lessons with his favorite student!
Sandra Morton Weizman chairs the Inclusion Task Force for the Calgary Jewish Federation in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She is a Museum and Heritage consultant and the mother of two adult children, one of whom has an autism spectrum disorder.