Good Will Hunter

Written by Dori Frumin Kirshner, Matan’s Executive Director Hunter bar mitzvah autism MatanAnother invitation to a bar mitzvah arrived in our mailbox. I envisioned a typical service followed by the usual photo montage and candle-lighting ceremony with rhyming stanzas.

But when I opened the envelope and began to read, I realized this was not just any bar mitzvah invitation. This was an invitation to celebrate the bar mitzvah of Hunter, a 13 year old boy with Autism. So, what would make this bar mitzvah different from all others?

The invite was laid out differently. It was clear that this service would be fashioned for Hunter, so he could connect with our tradition in a way that resonated with him.

The invitation noted that this Autism-Friendly Bar Mitzvah Service (and subsequent celebration) would:

  • Encourage kids to play or read quietly
  • Allow snacks and drinks in the pews
  • Encourage a free-flow for guests to come and go as shpilkes set in
  • Expect kids and parents to sit together
  • Entail a shorter service
  • Offer tons of activities for families to enjoy

Even the usual explanation of the bar mitzvah was customized: “bar mitzvah, translated as ‘Son of Commandments,’ is usually held when a boy is 13 years old and signifies the beginning of Jewish adulthood. In this case, we celebrate all of Hunter’s progress and successes to date, and begin to look forward to what will come next.”

When the first words of the service were uttered, the tears began to flow. When I looked around me, I saw I was in good company. The Rabbi called everyone together and set the stage for the experience about to take place. He said:

“Today we are all here to wish Hunter a ‘Happy Bar Mitzvah.’ To a lot of people, happiness is complicated. To Hunter, it is the simple things that make him happy. He loves to splash around in the pool on a hot summer day, the feel of the waves in the ocean as they break upon him, the taste of pizza, playing on his computer, helping out at the animal shelter. When he plays games, he doesn’t care if he wins or loses … he just loves to play. Hunter has the greatest laugh. It is a whole-hearted belly laugh. It makes YOU want to laugh. At the very least, it makes you smile. It serves as a reminder to all of us that happiness should not be complicated. Happiness is simply anything that you love. And we all love Hunter.”

The structure of the Amidah, which I have said countless times, penetrated my soul at this service:

“We praise You, O God, for the generations that have come before us; for the Abrahams and Sarahs and Isaacs and Rebeccas, and Jacobs and Rachels and Leahs, for the Hunters too. Through us all you reveal your love of Torah. Through us all, the generations flow, from parent to child. Israel lives, and our people live.”

The passage included all of God’s creations, not just the ones for whom legends are told. Everyone is worthy of a story, a history, a bar mitzvah. These prayers recognized and celebrated that notion. These prayers made me feel more connected to my religion than I can ever remember.

sraw the bulls-eye around the child Dori Frumin KirshnerAt most b’nai mitzvah services I have attended, the target has been drawn and the child “performed,” aiming for the center of that bulls-eye with varying degrees of success. Hunter’s bar mitzvah was an example of the bulls-eye being drawn around the child – and it fit so much better.

In Jewish education, we tend to place inordinate effort on attempting to fit students into “the box” of what a bar or bat mitzvah, educational success or social engagement should look like. If we are all different, shouldn’t the boxes be less uniform and more adjustable to individual needs and strengths? Isn’t that the purpose of invoking the different names of our ancestry? Demonstrating that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah and Hunter…and you and I, all connect differently? I never experienced this in a more profound way than while praying at Hunter’s bar mitzvah. I went to the bar mitzvah expecting to be moved, and I ended up transformed.

At the end of the service, we read…

Hunter taught us: The journey can be just as exciting as the destination…He has taught us that although people live different lives, that does not mean that they all can not have wonderful lives.”

That is the lesson that filled my heart and my plate this Thanksgiving weekend.

For anyone interested in accessing Hunter’s service booklet as a resource, we are proud to share it here: Hunter Elkins Cong version 9.3.14

A Morning with Jonathan Mooney

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An Invitation to attend Jonathan Mooney’s keynote address at the start of The Matan Institute of Greater Washington Tuesday, October 21, 2014, 9:00-10:30 am

Ohr Kodesh Congrega)on, 8300 Meadowbrook Lane, Chevy Chase, MD

Admission is free but you MUST click here to register! Questions? Contact Meredith@matankids.org

mooney bioJonathan Mooney is a dyslexic writer and activist who learned to read when he was 12 years old. He since earned an honors degree in English Literature at Brown University and has written and published two books. Jonathan has established himself as one of the foremost leaders in LD/ADHD, disabilities and alternative education.

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Matan Institute for Early Childhood Educators

Proudly announcing The Matan Institute for Early Childhood Educators!

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Who: Early Childhood Directors and Teachers

What: 14 hours of in-person training, 3 hours of webinars and a Matan mentor dedicated to your school

When: September 14, 2014 AND May 17, 2015, 8:30-3:30; plus webinars and mentoring during the months in between

Where: Matan’s offices in New York City, 520 Eighth Avenue

Why: Early Childhood Educators welcome families during a critical “entry point” of Jewish life. Research shows that early identification and early intervention are key to helping children reach their highest potential. Fusing these two important concepts, you will receive the training and tools that you need to create Jewish Early Childhood environments that successfully welcome and include all children. 

Cost: $1200 for the year long program (including 14 hours of in-person training, 3 hours of webinar training and a mentor assigned to your specific school)

For more information, and to submit an application, please click here.

Questions? Contact Meredith Polsky at Meredith@matankids.org

The Matan Institute is held in loving memory of Jeffrey B. Plevan, z”l. The Inaugural Matan Institute for Early Childhood Educators is made possible by the J.E. & Z.B. Butler Endowment Fund of UJA-Federation of New York and the Plevan Family.

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Ten Ways to Make Your Family Seder Accessible for All Learners

Written by Meredith Polsky of Matan, this post originally appeared on the New York Jewish Week’s The New Normal, April 2, 2014

Ten Ways to Make Your Family Seder Accessible for All Learners

Passover is an ideal holiday to explore multi-sensory ideas for reaching every type of learner at your seder through activities that engage particpiants not only through visual and auditory information, but also through touch, taste, and smell. Whether your goal is to keep everyone’s attention, or help individuals understand the story, or encourage participation from every guest, below are ten of our favorite ways to keep the seder interesting, active and fun!

1. Use a Seder Tracker to maximize children’s attention. In the Matan Seder Tracker, children add each step of the seder as it is completed.

2. Kadesh: Give your child very small cups so that they can drink a full cup at each of the 4 times during the seder.  If they don’t like grape juice, that’s okay.  You can fill it with water so they can participate in drinking from their cups 4 times.

3. Urchatz: Have your guests share a way they prepared for Passover and include the kids.  They can share something they did at Hebrew School, or if they searched for crumbs in their house they can share the funniest place they found something. This is a good activity when people are busy washing their hands.

4. Karpas: Have your child make the salt water.  They can do this during the beginning of the seder or before it starts.  During the seder, they can keep adding more salt as an experiment – how much salt do they need to make something float?

5. Maggid: Telling the story of Passover is typically the longest part of the seder.  Consider setting up stations in your home.  You can have a pyramid station where there are legos, Lincoln logs, and anything else they can make pyramids out of.  You can have a dress-up station with towels and bathrobes so they can pretend to be Pharoah or the slaves.  You can make pyramids at your table too.  Give your child sugar cubes or marshmallows and toothpicks and see how high they can make their pyramid.

6. Download Matan’s visual Ten Plagues so that everyone at the seder knows just how much G-d was helping the Jewish People to get out of Egypt!

7. Maror: Talk about things that are bitter in the world.  Ask the kids (and adults!) what is something “bitter” they would like to fix in the world.

8. Barech: Blessings after the meal – a great time to have your kids tell you something they are thankful for.

9. The song “Who Knows One” is very popular at lots of Passover Seders, but for some kids it can be difficult to keep up and remember which number goes with what. Print Matan’s visual version “Who Knows One” so everyone at your seder can have fun participating!

10. Play Passover Seder Bingo! A favorite of children and adults alike, give a bingo board and stickers to every person at your seder. When they hear each part of the seder, they find it on their board and put a sticker on it. When the whole card is filled up, the seder is over!

CHAG PESACH SAMEACH – HAPPY PASSOVER – HAVE FUN!

What Constitutes Success?

Written by Jason Lieberman, board member of Matan.

What Constitutes Success?With JDAM 2014 in the books, I thought I’d reflect on what I, a member of the Jewish community with a disability, and witness to the evolution of the month, views as JDAM success.

Professor Paul C Light, from the Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, suggests the true goal of non-profits is to make its mission obsolete. I always believed long-term, JDAM should strive for a similar goal. However, on a shorter-term basis my view of JDAM success has changed over time.

The first step to building a truly integrated or inclusive Jewish community is breaking down the barrier separating people with disabilities and their families from the “mainstream world,” which as a whole ignored us or saw our families and us as nothing more than a burden. Therefore, in the beginning, acknowledgement in a synagogue’s bulletin announcements, from the pulpit, or in the local Jewish paper was a success.

Acknowledgement, though only breaks the ice.  So nine years after the launch of the first national infinitive[1], I no longer believe acknowledgment constitutes success. To succeed now, JDAM must be a catalyst to a time when the inclusion of people with disabilities doesn’t need a specially dedicated month, but is simply normal operating procedure. A successful JDAM, therefore, requires programs with transformative potential. It must ignite, some action advancing opportunities within the community for people with disabilities.  That is, effectiveness requires JDAM’s benefits extend beyond March 1st. Thus locally, we shouldn’t measure JDAM’s success by the number of programs or attendance at those programs, but on whether the community is further on its journey toward inclusiveness and integration on March 1st than it was on February 1st, and further in 2015 than 2014.

Was your JDAM successful?



[1] Yachad and the OU launched North American Inclusion Month (NAIM) in October of 2005 and continue to use that name. The broader community rebranded it JDAM and moved it to February in 2009.