Each year at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, about one in every five b’nai mitzvah students has some sort of learning or developmental challenge.
“Every child has the right to a Jewish educational experience, and every child who works to the best of his or her ability has the right and privilege of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah,” said Or Ami Rabbi Paul Kipnes, who has overseen myriad b’nai mitzvot
since he started at the Reform synagogue 20 years ago.
“I think the success at Or Ami and other synagogues [that enthusiastically welcome students with learning challenges] is not that they are doing something extra for these kids, but they’re just doing what they’re supposed to be doing with every kid,” Kipnes said.
Most parents with special needs children who come to Kipnes already have been turned away from other synagogues. Kipnes meets with them to learn their experience in the Jewish community and what they are looking for for their child. He also inquiries about how their child learns, acts, behaves, writes and communicates. He assures the parents that their child can learn, but also stresses that the process will be a journey with ups and downs.
Kipnes said he also gives parents advance notice that, “We’re going to mess up. We’re a learning synagogue, and that means we’re going to learn from our mistakes and we’re going to double down and try to figure [things] out.”
The team that tries to figure out how best to work with the special needs b’nai mitzvah students is headed by Rabbi Julia Weisz, who is also the synagogue’s director of education. Weisz evaluates each student to see if they need individualized tutoring, a teen buddy or other resources. Other team members include educational therapists, teachers and psychologists who are part of the Or Ami community.
And then there’s the bar and bat mitzvah teacher herself — Diane Townsend.
“She is tough,” Kipnes said. “And once she figures out the key to your kid, she is totally flexible. She makes sure that every kid can get up on that bimah and shine.”
One of Townsend’s students, Ethan Epstein, had his bar mitzvah in 2014. Ethan is on the autism spectrum, and although he speaks, he has language deficits and learning disabilities that go along with it, said his mother, Jill Epstein. Ethan is the youngest of three children and “the beauty of having two older kids is that Ethan never thought that he was different,” she said.
At Ethan’s bar mitzvah, instead of reading the Torah portion, the family held a Havdalah service. “[Ethan] led every single prayer,” Jill Epstein said. “We have been so lucky, and we worked with so many amazing [therapists and teachers] over the years, so we had all of them come up at the same time [for an aliyah]. It was pretty spectacular.”
As with Ethan, Or Ami adapts the bar or bat mitzvah service to the capabilities of the student.
“We don’t have shrunk-down bar mitzvahs [or] fake ones,” Kipnes noted. “We fill in and around, and lift the child and the family up.”
“I’ve had a kid whose bar mitzvah was undressing and dressing the Torah, holding it, and carrying it around in his wheelchair, pushed by his parents,” Kipnes said.
Another student on the autism spectrum couldn’t sit still, so Kipnes taught him to blow the shofar.
Since his bar mitzvah, Ethan has been heavily involved in the Jewish teen community, including becoming a counselor at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Newman in the Bay Area.
With stories like Ethan’s, Kipnes hopes more congregations will embrace bar and bat mitzvahs for children with special needs. “If the synagogue has an open door,” he said, “then it’s just a matter of figuring out how to do it.”