Jodi Wenger

A mother shares her story of her son's Jewish journey

Three children on a bimah in front of a Torah

After three years on the Navajo nation and Passovers with the seven other
Jewish people we could find there, we were excited to connect with the Jewish
community in New Hampshire after we moved back East. One year later, we
delivered a boy with special needs. Would there be a place for him? Would he
find a Jewish identity? Could the schools and temple be inclusive? There were no
Hebrew educational options for our son, Holden, and he didn’t enjoy time at the
temple. He often signed “all done” and would stand up and try to leave. The rabbi
was at a loss on how to help us and we didn’t know what to ask for, so we only
sent our two younger sons to Hebrew School. What does inclusion mean if there
are no obvious ways to include him?

When we moved to Newton five years ago, we had no idea if Holden
would find his Jewish identity. Shortly after our arrival, a new acquaintance
recommended we sign up for Gateways: Access to Jewish Education. We found
it to be a well-organized effort with committed and patient Jewish special
education teachers, many adaptive tools and enthusiastic high school volunteers.
They made a very impressive effort, but it just wasn’t obvious to me that they
could teach Holden to feel connected to Judaism. We held off on a Bar Mitzvah
for Holden when he reached thirteen. We opted to wait for a time when this
might be more meaningful for him and for us, or until we could figure out what
that even meant.

Almost on a whim, and after a couple of years of Gateways, my husband
recommended we try taking Holden to Shabbat morning services. I wasn’t sure
this would work and I worried he would just disturb the service, but instead it
was amazing. Despite being non-verbal, Holden loved the service and songs, and
sat patiently through most of the service with a smile on his face. He covered his
eyes and bent forward at the right times. It was such a welcome change. Holden
now seems as excited to go to Shabbat services as he is to watch airplanes at
Castle Island or the T in Newton Centre. Around this time, I emailed our rabbis
to ask if it would be okay for Holden to bring his augmentative communication
device, (an IPad with an app he uses to communicate), to services. Gateways had
helped program it so Holden could participate in the service too. Rabbi Wes said
it would be the holiest IPad and we should definitely bring it. So we did. Now he can “sing” along with prayers, and wish others a Shabbat Shalom. Now is the special time that we had been waiting for.

We are nearing Holden’s Bar Mitzvah. The rabbis suggested we consider a
Havdalah service. It would be a smaller service and Holden wouldn’t need to be the
center of attention. But we opted for a Saturday morning service. It is the one we
usually go to. Holden knows the flow and routine and never hesitates to be the center of attention. He will stand in God’s image and lead services with the use of his iPad.

He will show the congregation how he can be included. He has found his Jewish
identity. We are so grateful and proud.

This article originally appeared in the Temple Emanuel of Newton From the Gates newsletter (March/April 2019).

Category: Category: Default Category