November 19, 2018

Their Right of Passage

Hundreds of Israeli children celebrate their bar and bat mitzvahs every week, and 13-year-old Asher Gorsky did not want to be an exception.

Last fall, Asher, a handsome but frail boy with a radiant smile, realized his dream before two dozen relatives and friends. Asher has cerebral palsy. He has no control over his voice or limbs, and he can see nothing but shadows.

When called up to the Torah at a Masorti/Conservative synagogue in the heart of Tel Aviv, the wheelchair-bound teen “recited” the blessings by pressing a special, automated vocal device with his head.

Although the voice on the tape was not actually Asher’s, the expression on the bar mitzvah boy’s face as he waited for the exact moment to chant the blessings spoke volumes about his determination to officially enter the ranks of Jewish adulthood.

While bar and bat mitzvah programs for disabled children have been operating for two decades in the United States, only one such program, introduced in 1994 by the Masorti/Conservative movement, is available in Israel.

This program has enabled nearly three dozen physically or developmentally disabled Israeli boys and girls to take an active role in their bar and bat mitzvahs, usually in a group ceremony. By the end of next year, at least 60 more will join their ranks.

Although Israeli society is progressive when it comes to special education, says Judith Edelman-Green, director of the Masorti movement’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah Program for the Special Child, “few severely disabled Israelis have had a full-fledged bar/bat mitzvah.”

While some families would never consider having their disabled child’s bar or bat mitzvah for religious or cultural reasons, “in most cases, Israeli families simply don’t know that such an option is available,” Edelman-Green says .

Some parents “assume that it’s impossible,” she says, because some religious authorities “say that severely disabled kids are exempt from the obligation of having a bar mitzvah ceremony.”

While the Masorti movement continues to seek recognition for its religious institutions in Israel, the bar and bat mitzvah program has received Ministry of Education funding since the summer of 1995.

The ministry’s approval of the program was “a very significant step of recognition for the Masorti movement as a whole,” Edelman-Green says.

The program provides intensive one-on-one instruction to disabled children, regardless of their physical and intellectual limitations or religious background.

Asher, the most disabled child to ever enter the program, had special needs.

“Many children who can’t speak simply point to the blessings, but since Asher can’t see, we decided to use a machine with a microphone next to his ear,” Edelman-Green says. “Working with his Torah teacher as well as his speech clinician, we were able to tailor a service that was just right for Asher.”

Although Asher can communicate only simple concepts with his vocal machine, Edelman-Green stresses that “everything came from him.”

Putting on a tallit “was Asher’s idea, as was his request for a kiddush cup. Believe me, he knew what was happening from beginning to end.”

Ironically, had Asher’s mother not read about the Masorti program in a local magazine, he would have become a b’nai mitzvah.

“We’re not religious, but we had been told that according to Orthodox law, children like Asher can’t have a bar mitzvah,” says Ada Liza Gorsky. “I didn’t know anything about the Masorti movement until I read the article.”

Holding her son’s hand after the ceremony, her eyes glistening with tears as relatives and friends smother Asher with kisses, Gorsky says, “We will never forget this beautiful day. It’s hard to tell exactly what Asher is feeling, but I know he is happy.”

Group Gifts

Communal b’nai mitzvah presents make teens and parents alike happy

By Lisa S. Lenkiewicz, Jewish Telegraphic Agency