Tradition Today: Special people with special needs

Often parents of these children are amazed what their special-needs children can do.

First grade school children kids class 311 (photo credit: Marc Sellem Israel/The Jerusalem Post)
First grade school children kids class 311
(photo credit: Marc Sellem Israel/The Jerusalem Post)
Recently I was privileged to participate in a very moving bar mitzva conducted by the Masorti Movement’s program for children with special needs. The bar mitzva boy, who is multiply handicapped, was in a wheelchair. He has some speech problems and attention difficulties as well. Nevertheless, he put on his tallit and tefillin, recited various blessings as part of the service and was called to the Torah for his first aliya. It would be difficult to describe the joy that showed in his face at this occasion, and his parents’ happiness at seeing him participate in a service in a synagogue.
Many decades ago, the Ramah Camps of the Conservative Movement pioneered a program for children with special needs called “Tikvah,” which has been extremely successful. It was important not only for those children, but for all the campers; for the first time, they began to appreciate the children who were different from them in some way yet equally created in the image of God.
Later, the Masorti Movement in Israel started this program of bar/bat mitzva training to help children with special needs feel that they are a part of the Jewish tradition, recognized as full human beings with every right to participate in the mitzvot. This program conducts classes on Judaism in special education schools, for children who are physically, mentally or emotionally impaired. At the end of the year, they hold bar/bat mitzva ceremonies according to each child’s abilities. There are children with hearing difficulties who use sign language, children who use computers in order to “speak.” The important thing is that all of them have an opportunity to celebrate their entry into Jewish adulthood in a synagogue setting and be recognized as people of worth in the eyes of the Jewish community and in the eyes of God.
Often parents of these children are amazed that their children can do this. These parents are also in need of help to see their children in a different light – one that does not emphasize their limitations, but boosts their abilities.
Although sponsored by the Masorti Movement, the program is open to all Israeli children with special needs, and indeed the b’nai mitzva come from all backgrounds, from totally secular to haredi.
The child at the ceremony I attended was from a family of Sephardi Jews, observant in a traditional way. His uncle, who was honored with an aliya, is serving in the army and came to the synagogue in his uniform, with his gun and wearing a kippa.
Jewish tradition has not always treated people with special needs kindly. The category of those exempt from performing mitzvot, for example, has been defined as minors, heresh and shoteh which – mistakenly – were identified as “deaf” and “retarded.” Actually heresh meant a deaf-mute – i.e., one who had no way of communication – and shoteh referred to a deranged person who had no control of his actions – i.e., extremely emotionally disturbed. Before initiating this program for special needs children, the Law Committee of the Israel Rabbinical Assembly adopted a responsa by this writer demonstrating that these children are indeed obligated to observe mitzvot and therefore can celebrate their bar/bat mitzva.
Recently the International Rabbinical Assembly Law Committee went further and accepted a responsa written by Rabbi Pamela Barmash stating that today the deaf and hard of hearing can demonstrate their ability to understand and to communicate and therefore should not come under previous restrictions. They ruled that “the deaf who communicate via sign language and do not speak are no longer to be considered mentally incapacitated.”
The time has indeed come for us to include all those with special needs in our synagogues and our communities as Jews with full rights, and to find ways to permit them to participate according to their abilities in their own way. This will enhance their quality of life and enrich the Jewish community as well.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, was the founding director of the Schechter Rabbinical School. His latest book is Entering Torah.