I once had a student in my old congregation who wanted to become Bar Mitzvah, and he was willing to attend school, study his portion and learn how to lead our morning service. He had tried to affiliate with other schools, but because he also had Cerebral Palsy, they told him it was beyond his ability. We said, “Why not try?”
It was my first lesson in breaking expectations, and one I made sure not to forget. Last I checked, Patrick was fulfilling the requirements for his Ph.D. and was traveling extensively in South America.
When Jules Friedman* came to TRT, she looked around my office but never made eye contact during that first meeting. Her parents, Jena and Alan, were clear on one thing: Jules, despite her living with autism, was going to become Bat Mitzvah. They wanted to know whether we were able to help her on this journey.
It turns out Jules is very musical, with a great ear for both melody and beat. Over the past two years, Karen Joseph, our music teacher, and I have learned to follow her lead: we sing her favorites when she needs encouragement; we introduce new concepts when she can focus; we dance and move and clap and hug. She can’t wait to come to school – and we want to build on that passion. When she comes to services, iPad in hand, she’ll look up and absorb what is going on around her, then revert back to her tablet. But if you ask her to point to the Torah, she’ll go right up to the ark and kiss the scrolls. She sang the “Shema” for a group of women setting up in the sanctuary; had you asked me even last year what she could do, I would never have dreamed that possible.
Her connection to TRT, her bond with basic Jewish concepts and liturgy and her feeling comfortable within our temple home are strong and real and infuse the staff with awe. When she got up to dance last Rock Shabbat because the spirit moved her, she reinforced what Cantor Alexander was singing with joy.
More than we have taught Jules, Jules has taught us to throw out the pre-conceived notions of a child’s ability to embrace her past and make it her present.
At TRT, we want each child to fulfill his/her own Jewish destiny and we promise to accompany each one with love.
Rabbi Shira Stern
*Story used at the suggestion and with the permission of her parents.