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Autism, Teens and Torah - Just Another Shabbat

Autism, Teens and Torah - Just Another Shabbat

One recent Shabbat, on the anniversary of his bar mitzvah, a young man with autism chanted Torah at our erev Shabbat service. I've been thinking about it since, and was genuinely moved by the whole experience. 

I have known this nearly-17-year-old young man since he was in kindergarten, and I am proud to have had a significant role in his Jewish education for so many years. And yet I find myself struggling to put what I felt on this recent Shabbat into words.

It was wonderful that he walked to the bimah with poise and pride, but I expected that. It was impressive to hear him chant smoothly and clearly, but I expected that. It was awesome that he allowed himself to be hugged by everyone on the bimah when he finished, but I have come to expect that, too.

So what made this so remarkable? 

What made this Shabbat so remarkable was the very fact that it was just another Shabbat, with another one of our teens chanting Torah on the anniversary of their b'nai mitzvah. And no one said, “Wow, I can't believe he did that,” or “How wonderful” in that mildly patronizing tone. It was simply “yasher koach” (“job well done”), the same thing we say to anyone who beautifully chants Torah.

And yet I will acknowledge that there was one moment in the evening that was truly unique. After services had ended, I wanted to share what a wonderful job he had done – but I couldn't get past the ridiculously long line of congregants all waiting to do the very same thing! 

This is the beauty of inclusion.

Lisa Friedman is the education co-director at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey. This position includes overseeing an extensive Special Needs program within the Religious School designed to help students successfully learn Hebrew, learn about their Jewish heritage and feel connected to their Jewish community. Lisa also consults with congregations to develop inclusive practices for staff, clergy, and families through dialogue, interactive workshops and awareness training. She blogs at Removing the Stumbling Block.

Lisa Friedman
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