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Approaching Bar and Bat Mitzvah With Children of All Abilities

Meredith Polsky

Jewish adulthood is worth celebrating; MatanWhen Jewish children reach the age of bar and bat mitzvah, we celebrate their emerging Jewish adulthood. Most children teach their Torah, participate in leading the liturgy and complete a mitzvah project of some sort. Jewish children of ALL abilities need to be, unequivocally, a part of this. Whether or not they can lead liturgy, they are all a part of our liturgical community. Whether or not they can speak, their Torah is important. Regardless of what a child may be able to do, their emerging Jewish adulthood is worth celebrating.

Preparation for bar and bat mitzvah starts young; intentionally. Throughout childhood Jewish children are taught with the assumption that someday they will be Jewish adults responsible for their own Judaism.

Jewish boys are circumcised at eight days old; with the hope “just as he has entered the covenant of circumcision, so too shall he enter the covenant of Torah, chuppah, and good deeds.” An infant is too young to understand those words, but old enough that it matters that they are said. We include babies in Jewish ritual before they are old enough to understand, and we speak to and about them in Jewish terms. We do this both because we know that they learn before they can speak, and because it shapes our own attitudes towards them. This early education is a critically important part of the b’nai mitzvah process, whether or not a child’s development is typical.

Children with developmental disabilities need education for bar/bat mitzvah and Jewish adulthood as much as anyone else does. A key piece to keep in mind is that a four year old who is not speaking is not a baby, and has not stopped learning. And all the more so an eight year old. Their learning is different; it’s not arrested. Whether or not someone can show us what’s in their head, their head is never empty. They are learning and they have thoughts that matter.

[Tweet “Whether or not someone can show us what’s in their head, their head is never empty.”]

Another important part of the b’nai mitzvah process is to help children understand that they have things to say worth listening to. So this means we must listen to them, whether or not they are currently able to use words. It also means doing what is possible to help them access words, because there is much that can only be said clearly using words.

How do we do this?

Many people who can’t speak can learn to communicate in words using other methods. (And many people who can speak or who can speak in a limited way can express more of their thoughts via other means.) One good option is to utilize a speech generating device based on core vocabulary (the 600-1000 most commonly used words). It was once thought that people needed to show readiness for these devices by starting with simpler boards, but it has now been shown that there are no prerequisites and that it’s better to start with core vocabulary from the beginning. And using such devices need not be limited by mobility. People with limited motion can often use devices with switch access or eye gaze systems. Those with severe apraxia sometimes do better with approaches like the Rapid Prompting Method. And for some people, approaches based on typing or the alphabet work better. As with all learning, know the learner best is what will help each to be their most successful.

All children, from an early age, are thinking and learning. Whether or not a child can use words, it’s important that we listen to them. Whether or not a child can show us what they know, it’s important to keep teaching them. No matter what a child does or does not seem to understand, they are growing up. Their adulthood is approaching, and it’s worth celebrating.

Ruti Regan; Matan


Ruti Regan is Matan’s first Rabbinic intern. A 4th year Rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a long-time disability advocate Ruti will contribute her own teachings via the Matan blog, webinars, Matan Institutes and new curricular projects.



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