While every child has individual needs when it comes to bar and bat mitzvah preparation, youngsters with mental and physical disabilities have unique challenges and strengths. As the director of congregational learning at Neveh Shalom and mother of a son with Asperger’s syndrome, Mel Berwin’s interest in working with all children runs deep.
“At one time there was a special class for kids with disabilities,” Berwin said. “Now, all of the kids are fully integrated into our community and our learning program.” Challenges include everything from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia to autism spectrum and Down syndrome. The standards and template for what kids do for their bar or bat mitzvah expands and contracts according to each child’s abilities.
“The relationship starts in school between the parents, child, teachers and myself,” Berwin said. “We identify who needs tutoring or individualized learning plans earlier than the typical one-year schedule for bar and bat mitzvah.” Plans might include extra attention and help from teenage volunteers (madrichim).
“Some of the teenagers who work in our Sunday and weekday afternoon program have special needs themselves,” Berwin said. “They are models for our students, leaders in the community and an important message for our kids.”
Berwin also works with Neveh Shalom’s professional tutors. Some, like Eddy Shuldman and Deborah Freedberg, have years of experience with special needs. “Eddy’s background is in special education, and it is a blessing that she works with so many of our children, including those with special needs,” Berwin said. “Deb has been working with my son, and with her help and relationship he is now able to come to our downstairs minyan and lead prayers on a regular basis.”
According to Berwin, adapting the bar and bat mitzvah ceremony for special needs children always concerns parents. “My son didn’t talk to other children until he was about 6, so I couldn’t imagine him standing up in front of a congregation,” she said. “We have always said, ‘How you celebrate your bar mitzvah is up to you.’ We could have it in the living room with 10 adults. Neveh Shalom has so many davening spaces we are able to meet special needs. Sometimes a child will want a weekday instead of Shabbat, or might do a havdalah service. It’s equally meaningful to them. The relationship the staff builds with the kids and each other makes everything possible.”