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Wes becomes a Bar Mitzvah by Jerry Cohn
(Reprinted from South Florida's B'nai Mitzvah!)

Over ten years ago Ellen Kleinert- Cohn my wife had an experience that she is unlikely to ever forget. Ellen had attempted to schedule a Bar Mitzvah date for her son Wes, who is developmentally disabled as a result of DPT inoculation at approximately five months of age. Wes would never be able to read the Hebrew from the Torah since he was having difficulty mastering English. However, we still felt like he deserved to have a Bar Mitzvah, even one that would have been modified by synagogue representatives. Unfortunately, the synagogue turned Wes away from his chance to undergo a traditional Bar Mitzvah ceremony. It was a particularly tough time because Wes' dad had passed away only six months prior.

Ellen is often times quoted as saying, "Our community is not always accepting even of our own. My child's big day was taken away. These children don't usually have a place to go where they can function as Jews." The process of getting Wes ready was a long one. It took almost two and a half years of tutoring and practicing at home by recording his tutoring lessons on tape. "We never thought that he would come this far but he was determined to get there. It was his goal," said Ellen.

At that time, I was Ellen's attorney for special needs matters and we arranged to have a private Bar Mitzvah for Wes, which proved to be highly meaningful. Wes learned the true meaning of Mitzvot and as a part of his Bar Mitzvah process he was required to do good deeds for other people. Approximately, 200 people witnessed Wes feel the passage from being a Jewish child into a Jewish adult, now with certain responsibilities. In fact, the week after his Bar Mitzvah Wes demanded to wear his Tallit at Friday night Shabbat services when typically a Tallit is not worn. He adamantly stated, "I'm a Jewish man and I'm going to wear my Tallit to services" and that's exactly what he did.

"The best advice that I can give parents who are sailing the same boat as I was is to hang in there and not to get discouraged." Ellen said, "There are people out there who are willing to help children with special needs. Never forget that just because a child is disabled it doesn't mean that they don't have any religion."

Mazel Tov! to Wes and his family from B'nai Mitzvah! We sincerely hope success stories like this and the sharing of one family's ideas will help other children with disabilities become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

Photographing a Child With Special Needs
By Mark Milch, PPA Certified Photographer, and owner of Milch Photography (516)889-1508
(Reprinted from Long Island's B'nai Mitzvah!)

My experience with special needs children started with my own son. Through the years I have come to specialize in photographing these special children. I find it both fun and rewarding producing images that in many cases the parents didn't even think were possible.
As you search for a photographer to cover the Bar or Bat Mitzvah of your special needs child, it is important to look for the following:

First you want to find someone who takes pride in their craft, which usually means a photographer that does this full time.

It is a good idea for your child to visit with the photographer and become comfortable with him or her. This will give both your child and the photographer a chance to meet each other, so that when their special day arrives your child will be comfortable and will view the photographer as a friend.

With any child, doing the portraits, as well as the temple pictures on a separate day makes sense. With your special needs child, this is critical! This is done the week of, or even earlier (depending on you and your child¹s needs and your schedule), but never after the event. I always suggest to my clients to bring snacks and drinks along so that the child can be given a break as needed. You should make sure that the child has had a good meal prior to the shoot, so that they are comfortable and not hungry.

The photographer you are looking for should also belong to local, state and national societies, with accreditation. His work, when viewed, should be fun, creative and well composed. Even more important is finding a photographer who is kind, caring, understanding of your child¹s needs and most of all patientŠ.lots of patience for your child.

I also recommend asking the photographer for references from other special needs children he or she has photographed. The photographer you choose should also be aware that special needs children will need more time during a shoot, and should be willing to pace his time accordingly.

Don't worry; you will know when you find the right photographer.

Jewish Books for the Visually Impaired
Where does the parent of a reading or physically disabled child go when looking for study materials for the Bar or Bat Mitzvah? Where can one find a parsha in Braille? How does the dyslexic child learn their haftorah when standard print is incomprehensible? And how can a parent ensure that their child participate in religious studies alongside their peers? JBI International has the answer to these questions. A nonprofit organization serving people at all stages of life, and an Affiliated Library of the Library of Congress, JBI is the largest library for the visually impaired in the world of Jewish interest books and liturgical and cultural materials and provides services free of charge worldwide.

JBI's services are unique: Specially formatted parshiot and haftorot are created in audio, Braille or large print for B’nai Mitzvot and customized readings are prepared based on synagogue practice. Textbooks of Jewish interest are produced in Braille for the blind or in large print and audio for the dyslexic child facilitating comprehension. JBI recently created a Chumash bookplate in Braille for a blind Bar Mitzvah. JBI also prepared a Bat Mitzvah certificate in a combination of Braille and standard text for a blind child and her family and friends.

The parent of a dyslexic child says it best. "We knew we had a boy with a severe learning disability. We had been told he was years behind his age-appropriate reading level. He comprehended little and hated reading. We heard about JBI and learned otherwise. I had hope that we could open the world to our son. We could give him a good Jewish education. He could have his bar mitzvah. Even better; we learned that JBI would transcribe his Hebrew books as well as his Sunday school materials. But best for me as a mother, now he could listen to books about Jewish children just like him. He reads at an age-appropriate level and reading is no longer the chore we fight about. Since finding JBI we see a more confident boy who doesn't have to feel that he can't read he knows he can. This confidence spills over into his other activities. I cannot begin to tell you what it felt like to hear him LAUGH as he read a book."

JBI: Jewish Books for the Visually Impaired

JBI New York headquarters: 1.800.433.1531 or 212.889.2525

Rebecca’s Bat Mitzvah
In May of 1995, my daughter, Rebecca, was 12 years old, and it dawned on me that in another year she would be 13 and the age to become a Bat Mitzvah. The only problem was that Rebecca hadn't gone to Hebrew school and hadn't learned how to read the Torah or chant the Haftorah. In fact, Rebecca couldn't speak or communicate in language, as we know it. The reason was that my daughter was mentally handicapped, developmentally delayed, autistic-like. She had no verbal communicating skills, although she could be quite vocal. She needed assistance with dressing, feeding, bathing and all forms of everyday tasks that most of us take for granted.

I approached my Rabbi, the late Howard Kahn of Congregation Beth El in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, where I live. He was very open to whatever I wanted to do. At the time, Becky was enrolled in a once a week program called Beit Ya’akov. I asked the teachers to work with her for that year on learning the tunes to Hebrew songs, because music has always been a very important part of Rebecca's life.

On May 5th, 1996, Rebecca became a Bat Mitzvah at a simple, but very spiritual ceremony at Beth El. It wasn't very long, 45 minutes, but the feelings that were with me that day will last forever.

First, the Rabbi got up and said some prayers. Then, Rebecca and I went up to the bimah. And as I started to sing Hi Ne Ma Tov, Rebecca joined in, right on cue, and sang the tune right along with me. She did this with each of the 3 or 4 songs I sang. Truthfully, I was holding my breath, hoping she wouldn't add a Beatles song in there. But she did everything perfectly.

Rabbi Kahn spoke and said that although he had officiated at thousands of Bar and Bat Mitzvot, this was the holiest one. He told the story of the farm boy who made Ba’al Shem Tov smile by blowing his whistle. Today, Becky blew her whistle.

Afterwards, I spoke to Becky about life and how she may be disabled, and cannot speak, but she is still a 13-year-old Jewish girl and that G-d created her, and in His eyes she can become a Bat Mitzvah. He can hear her, even if we can’t. I talked about how Becky is a lot like every other 13-year-old girl. She knows her alphabet and can read. She smiles, laughs, cries, and sleeps, just like other children. And she loves music, especially the Beatles, and can even make sounds that are in tune to many of their songs. As if on cue, from behind me where Becky was sitting, she said “Yea, Yea, Yea.” I had invited 40 families and friends to share in this special day, but instead of gifts, I asked for donations to her school, the Larc School in Bellmawr, NJ, where she has had the most wonderful people work with her and help her with her progress.

Rebecca is now 21 years old. She has just graduated from school, and will be attending an adult day program for handicapped young adults. She still needs complete assistance with everyday tasks, but has come a long way. I will always remember the very special Bat Mitzvah ceremony that made me feel my daughter was truly a part of our special Jewish community.

Mazel Tov! to Rebecca and her family from B’nai Mitzvah and Jewish Weddings Magazine! We especially want to thank Rebecca’s mom, Mindy, for helping us write this article. We sincerely hope success stories like this and the sharing of one mom’s ideas will help other children with disabilities become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

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