October 22, 2019

Including peers with special needs can be part of a teen’s transition from child to adult

For many teens, a bar or bat mitzvah is not just a rite of passage and an embrace of a community’s Jewish values; it also is an opportunity to make a mark socially by inviting BFFs and other classmates.

In the process, there are going to be kids who will not make the list — some may have special needs, difficult family situations or other qualities that make them “different” in the eyes of their peers. While the rejection itself can be painful, it can be accentuated after the service when classmates return to school and discuss the exciting day’s events. 

That’s why teaching teens ongoing lessons about inclusion is important, especially at this critical moment in their lives, according to Jerome Schultz, a clinical neuropsychologist at Harvard Medical School and author of “Nowhere to Hide: Why Kids With ADHD & LD Hate School and What We Can Do About It.” 

“It is a matter of right, as well as a reflection of the Jewish philosophy about embracing difference within our own community,” he said.

While Nes Gadol, a program of Jewish learning for children with special needs at Vista Del Mar, a Los Angeles social services agency, offers the b’nai mitzvah experience, its director, Rabbi Jacqueline Redner, believes including special-needs youths in the coming-of-age ceremonies of their peers can magnify the success of the program. 

“The first lesson coming out of the Torah is that all humans are created in God’s image,” she said. “This is what prompted us to start a community-inclusion program at temples throughout Los Angeles, helping [educators] to create their own programming for kids who learn differently and create an inclusive environment.”

Redner explains that practices at Nes Gadol, which means “a great miracle,” can be done in every household. When parents have their discussion about bar or bat mitzvah invitations, it should be clear that it is not just about inviting a certain child, but what they can do as a family to ensure that every classmate is made to feel welcome. 

“Having been a teenager yourself, whether you were one of the kids invited or one of those put on the shelf, you know your teen’s rite of passage can also be a teachable moment if you do it with sensitivity and care,” Redner said. “With some guidance, you and your teen can be a living example of a value that is clearly stated in the Torah.”

Getting kids to think about inclusion doesn’t have to be something that waits until they’re a teen. Lisa Niver Rajna, formerly a science teacher at Brawerman Elementary School at L.A.’s Wilshire Boulevard Temple, has throughout her career worked issues about diversity and inclusion into her lessons.

“We observe how caterpillars become butterflies,” she said. “Some butterflies emerge that may have a wing with a problem. I leave all of them in the habitat. When we go outside to release all of them, we talk about how not everyone is the same. Some butterflies, like people, have a problem with a limb or other body part, yet we are all part of the community.” 

Schultz says that today’s youths are exposed to a wider range of children with differences than in the past, due to mainstreaming in the classroom. As a result, he said, “Today, the discussion between parents and kids would be, ‘Why would you not invite a particular classmate?’ If a special-needs child is a part of the world the typical child inhabits, the idea of exclusion seems ethically and morally wrong.”

West Los Angeles author Tom Fields-Meyer, the father of a son with autism, says that a bar or bat mitzvah celebrates a young person taking a place of responsibility in the community, and that comes with certain obligations.

“One primary Jewish value is ‘kol yisrael arevim zeh la zeh,’ or, ‘All Jews are responsible for one another.’ What a perfect way to demonstrate that — by making sure that everyone in your circle feels included in your simcha,” said Fields-Meyer, who wrote “Following Ezra: What One Father Learned About Gumby, Otters, Autism, and Love From His Extraordinary Son.”

While he says that inclusion wasn’t an issue for his son, he stresses that the process of Hebrew school that leads up to the bar or bat mitzvah is full of countless teachable moments on all sides. 

“Our tradition tells us to be sensitive to those among us who are different in some way, particularly in ways that might make them seem or feel weaker.”

Susan North Gilboa, director of OurSpace — a collaboration between Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills and Valley Beth Shalom in Encino that facilitates Jewish experiences for people with special needs — says parents and teens often reach out to her expressing interest in volunteering for a bar or bat mitzvah project. However, before they sign on, Gilboa advises them that the participants in the OurSpace classes, social groups, art class and choir are not “projects.”

“[Volunteering] isn’t just about ‘being nice to them’ or ‘trying to include people with special needs,’ ” she said. “It’s about learning about our [participants’] special abilities and successes,” she says. “While volunteering, teens also learn from OurSpace and its participants about the value of creating spaces for everyone in our community.”