Thursday, October 4, 2018

Autism no barrier for my son's beautiful bar mitzvah at the Western Wall


Bar mitzvah of boy with autism at Western Wall
The author (center, holding Torah) with his son Gershon on his left, celebrating Gershon's bar mitzvah at the Western Wall.

By Yossi Kahana, director, JNF Task Force on Disabilities

Thousands of families from Israel and around the world have celebrated bar mitzvahs at the Western Wall, the Jewish world's most important place of prayer. Each week, the Western Wall plaza fills with joyous, emotional families who have arrived to celebrate their sons' bar mitzvahs at the site, the source of Jewish inspiration and yearning for centuries, and a symbol of the fortitude and strength of the State of Israel.

In a special ambiance of unity and holiness, a young bar mitzvah boy and his family have an unforgettable experience as a new link is created in the eternal chain of generations -- that of Jewish families in particular and the Jewish people as a whole. It's no surprise several generations of the same family have celebrated their sons' bar mitzvahs in this way.

Thirteen years ago, my family and I started marching on our own special journey when our son Gershon was born and diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Last month, we also arrived to the wall to celebrate our Gershon's bar mitzvah. With Gershon, it's hard for me to say "bar mitzvah" because he is not yet ready for the responsibilities of the Torah's commandments, and we don't really know when he will be. Yet it was a special day. Emotional, but special.

What can I say? We cried. A bar mitzvah celebration is supposed to be the day when a young boy becomes a "man," a person responsible for his actions. For us, this is not the case. Gershon is still a young boy, and will probably be so for a number of years to come. I was standing there at the Western Wall, the holiest place for the Jews, blessing G-d who had given us this gift. 



Gershon was very excited when he was wearing his tefillin and took the Torah out from the ark next to the wall. The plaza was filled with families who had come to celebrate their sons. Gershon was among them, like them, no different. 

More on Israel and disabilities
A beautiful tree of hope grows at Aleh Negev
Soldiers with special needs change IDF comrades' lives 
Moved and awe-inspired seeing Israelis with special needs

As autism has become more common over the past 20-30 years, those with autism and their allies have tried to move beyond awareness to acceptance. But there's still not a lot of talk about joy. Too often, there's a misconception that acceptance means only accepting behaviors that are considered non-standard, or accepting that a person with autism may not hit the same milestones as one with doesn't have autism. Yet acceptance can lead to moments like Gershon's bar mitzvah service. 

Gershon said the blessing on the Torah so well because of the strengths he derives, in part, from autism. He smiles at the people he loves because they accept him as he is. We believe the end goal of acceptance isn't a life you trudge through, pushing away your wish that your kid could be typical. Rather, the goal is to find the joy, and to celebrate your child, as he is.

For more on Jewish National Fund's work with disabilities and special needs, click here

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