For Rachel Nemhauser, mother of two and member of Congregation Kol Ami in Woodinville, getting her son ready for his bar mitzvah was next to impossible. Nate, who has autism, had difficulty with the learning and behavior that traditionally accompanies the rite of passage for 13-year-old boys. Nemhauser found herself asking, “what are the ways he can engage, access the service, and show his gifts that don’t involve preparation?”
Crucial to this process was the support of the community. Parents with special-needs children must “have a congregation and a clergy team that understand the uniqueness of your child,” Nemhauser says. Rabbi Yohanna Kinberg, who oversaw Nate’s bar mitzvah in August 2017, seconded the importance of recognizing a child’s individuality. “Every child shines when they are honored and uplifted for who and what they are exactly in that moment,” she says.
With Nate, this meant a low-pressure, low-stress ceremony. Instead of formal pictures, Nate sat by a well-lit window playing on his iPad while his family took turns strategically posing around him. Rather than Nate arriving as the center of attention, congregants gradually filled the room with him already present.
The bar mitzvah wasn’t necessarily simple or easy, but Nemhauser still describes the event as “perfect.” Reading from the Torah wasn’t an option, so her son helped Kinberg lead the service. Although he cast aside his yarmulke midway through and requested his iPad several times, Nate displayed a charm and charisma fitting of such a milestone. Needless to say, Mom was proud. “We honored Nate by allowing him to be himself,” she says. “It was amazing.”
Kinberg shares more options for parents looking to successfully honor their child. For non-verbal children, family members can read Torah or lead prayers in their child’s place. Playing music or creating a video to share with the congregation is an individualized alternative to a d’var Torah or speech.
After completing the service, Nate took a different approach to the tradition of congregants showering the bar mitzvah boy with candy. Instead, he was directed to the basket of candy, and, with a wide smile, he tossed handfuls of wrapped gummies at the congregation. “He was surrounded by people who loved him and accepted him and supported him,” Nemhauser says, “people who laughed and cried and dodged candy all at the same time.”
Above all, the emphasis should be on celebrating the bar/bat mitzvah, not on what the child can’t do. Kinberg, who grew up with a learning disability, shares that her parents’ celebration of her abilities was significantly more helpful than focusing on a small part of her identity. Nemhauser concurs. “It’s not about the disability; it’s about the child being lucky enough to have a room full of people highlighting and celebrating what’s unique about them. That’s irreplaceable.”