At His Untraditional Bar Mitzvah, A Son With Autism Leads The Congregation
A piece of my soul died when we decided that my son Ben’s autism would necessitate a reexamination of a conventional bar mitzvah service. Having guided so many young people through their studies towards becoming bar or bat mitzvah, I yearned to have the unique privilege of preparing my own son, my firstborn, the way my father, also a rabbi, had long ago prepared me.
Though Ben’s desire to mark this occasion by participating in our local Walk Now for Autism Speaks was one which we fully embraced, I mourned the demise of a fantasy: standing beside my child as he took his place in the chain of our family’s tradition, led his congregation in prayer, chanted from the Torah and delivered a d’var Torah, or commentary, upon reaching the age of commandments.
Martin Buber, one of the preeminent Jewish theologians of the last century, divides the human experience into two categories: I-It, in which we hold something back from another person, I-Thou, in which we share ourselves totally. He posits that our lives are enhanced and defined by our relationships – with our goal of being in relationship with God as the Ultimate Thou. Between a parent and child, I-Thou moments occur more frequently as the child matures. But parents of a child on the autism spectrum fear they might never come.
Yet as we moved through the weekend, I was taken aback by the abundance of I-Thou moments. At several points, I remember thinking to myself that I was experiencing such abject holiness and perfection that I had to emblaze it on my very soul.
One such moment was so unexpected that I have returned to it dozens of time in hopes of searing it into my memory for the rest of my time here on earth. Just as we were about to kindle the Sabbath candles, I leaned over to Ben and asked him if he would like to start the Kiddush. I have no more idea what made me ask than I do what made him say yes.
Ben had certainly started the Kiddush many times at home, but his fear of speaking in public is typically so anxiety-producing that it never occurred to me that he would agree to lead any of the prayers. In a clear, strong voice, he began. I wondered if his voice might taper off once everyone joined in the prayer. I wondered if he might stop at the conclusion of the first line. But he kept going. With no visible hesitation.
Standing beside him, as I have done for scores of bar and bat mitzvah students, I served not as worship leader but as the supportive worship wing-man. Ben never once faltered, leading us all in the prayer that proclaims the sanctity of the seventh day.
When I asked Ben about his personal highlights of the weekend, the first one he mentioned was leading Kiddush on Friday night. “I was so nervous,” he admitted. I reassured him that it was not apparent to anyone – even me. He was surprised; he thought it was obvious to everyone. When I wondered how he was able to get up in front of everyone and lead the entire prayer, he responded, “because I was totally prepared.” Not because it had been an assigned prayer or because we had ever worked on it together. Rather, a lifetime of Shabbat dinners acted as the ultimate preparation.
In all of our planning and all the anticipation, never did I expect my shy, fearful, anxious son to grasp such control of a blessing and prayer with pray with such skill and stunning kavannah, or intention. It was the ultimate I-Thou moment.
Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr is a CLAL Rabbis Without Borders Fellow whose work appears regularly on the Rabbis Without Borders blog and Kveller.com as well as a variety of other online sites. Writing at This Messy Life (www.rebeccaeinsteinschorr.com), Rebecca finds meaning in the sacred and not-yet-sacred intersections of daily life. Follow her on Twitter @rebeccaschorr.
Originally posted at The Jewish Week's blog The New Normal, which focuses on disabilities and the Jewish community