Their Rite of Passage

Peter Schworm, Boston Globe Staff

Class gives special-needs students lessons on bar, bat mitzvahs

child wearing tallit and adaptive aids, with tefillin; tutor with hearing aidsphoto by Erik Jacobs/Jacobs Photographic

NEWTON - Tracing his finger across the laminated page, his eyes scanning the Hebrew script, young Noah Bittner chanted a passage from the Torah. He sang softly and slowly, rarely straying from a monotone, but was able to recite an entire Genesis verse without pause, drawing praise from his tutor.

"That was so good, Noah," said Silvia Golijov, raising her hand for a high-five. "I knew you could do it."

Bittner, a 12-year-old with autism, glanced up and gently tapped her hand without a smile, then silently looked back down at the page.

Across the room at Hebrew College, about a dozen children with a range of developmental disabilities worked with individual tutors in preparation for their bar and bat mitzvahs. Students with autism and intellectual impairments learn, to the best of their ability, to read in Hebrew from the Torah and lead the congregation in prayer, and to grasp the principles of their faith and their commitment to it.

Founded in 1999 by parents for children who had trouble attending regular Hebrew school, the weekly hour-long class is the only program in New England that prepares special-needs students to participate in the coming-of-age ceremony. Some practice for two years, painstakingly memorizing the Hebrew alphabet and endlessly reciting verses, for the moment they are called to the Torah.

"For any religious practice to be credible, it has to be accessible to everyone," said Erik Bittner, Noah's father, who created the program for his other son Nathan, a 15-year-old with autism.

The program, which includes a Sunday school for 45 children with special needs, has grown steadily and now draws students across Massachusetts. Twenty students have celebrated bar and bat mitzvahs, and another six plan to take part in the rite of passage this year. Ceremonies vary depending on observances and students' abilities - some students give a brief speech and answer questions from a rabbi, while others read just a short passage.

Arlene Remz, executive director of Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, a Newton nonprofit group that runs the program, said the classes give students with special needs the chance to achieve a milestone extremely rare among children with disabilities.

"Their parents just assumed they wouldn't participate in Jewish education," she said. "This fills that void."

Nationally, synagogues and Jewish organizations are increasingly reaching out to children with intellectual impairments, said Becca Hornstein, executive director of The Council For Jews With Special Needs and a national expert on the topic.

"It's been exponential," she said.

Synagogues were traditionally reluctant to skirt strict rabbinical rules to make accommodations for children who could not read or recite prayers. But beginning in the 1970s, parents who fought for inclusion in public schools began pressing for expanded opportunities in Jewish education, she said.

But many synagogues remain skeptical, said Scott Sokol, who directs Hebrew College's special education program. "There's a lot of resistance," he said.

"There are a lot of sad stories of parents of children with special needs feeling disenfranchised from their synagogue." With a patient, flexible approach, students with cognitive impairments can learn about faith and find ways to express it, Sokol said.

Bittner said that many people wrongly assume that children like Nathan and Noah are not only unable to prepare for bar mitzvah, they don't want to. But he said both of his sons, who learned Hebrew at a young age, have found comfort and meaning in the classes.

"We have found Nathan and Noah very much want to learn, if it's made accessible and meaningful to them," Bittner said.

Hebrew College is the only college in the country that offers a program in Jewish special education, and several of its students are tutors. Others are volunteers like Rachel Chafetz, a 36-year-old who said introducing special-needs students to the Jewish faith has strengthened her own.

"I learned that everything is possible," she said. She recalled telling a student the Biblical parable of a talking donkey who can see an angel that its master cannot. The student, who has Down syndrome and had his bat mitzvah in June, replied that it was just like the talking donkey in the "Shrek" movies.

Students with special needs, excluded from many everyday experiences, cherish the sense of belonging and kinship that runs through the class, tutors, and parents said.

Josh Beshansky, a 12-year-old with autism, fidgets as he reads aloud from flash cards of Hebrew letters. He then slowly recited a Torah verse, retracing his steps when he realized his mistakes, and celebrating when he finished. "I did it, I did it!" he exclaimed. At the end of the class, students read their Torah portions to the group to practice speaking before a crowd. When it was Noah's turn, he shyly walked to the center of the room, and began to sing.

Leaning over the text, he sang more fully than in practice, with a wider range. After singing the last line, "And Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord," he remained still, his eyes down. When he heard people clapping, he looked up, scanned the crowd, and softly smiled.

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