August 22, 2019

Max’s Very Special Bar Mitzvah

Like many Jewish mothers, Jody Barrens Moran knew she wanted to do something extra special for her son Max’s bar mitzvah, but she wasn’t trying to come up with a crazy theme or have a horse gallop into the ceremony with the bar mitzvah boy in the saddle. She was just trying to figure out how to have a meaningful ceremony at Temple Emanuel, a Reform synagogue in Beverly Hills, for her 13-year-old son, who is nonverbal and can’t walk without assistance. As Barrens Moran says, she lives her life according to her favorite quote from actress Audrey Hepburn: “Nothing is impossible — the word itself says, ‘I’m possible!’ ”

Max has significant developmental delays in all areas, but doctors haven’t been able to diagnose him. He communicates with family members and those who know him by his expressive eyes, attends a special education program and participates in intensive physical and occupational therapy.

Rabbi Jonathan Aaron and Cantor Lizzie Weiss at Temple Emanuel embraced the idea of planning a joyful, nontraditional bar mitzvah, and created a unique prayer experience that would put Max in the center of all the activities, even though he wouldn’t be able to assume the traditional roles of leading the congregation in prayer or read Hebrew from the Torah scroll. So on Feb. 24, Jody Barrens Moran read from the Torah instead of Max, and a cousin Max’s age held the Torah on his behalf during the l’dor v’dor ritual, when a Torah is passed from grandparents to parents, and then to the youngest generation. Weiss wrote a custom tallit blessing that was titled, “We Wrap You in Love” and included these lines: “With each glance into your eyes we see your soul /And we see our Blessing.”

Max was beaming throughout the service that was attended by 150 family members and friends, recognizing and soaking up all the love in the room that was focused on him. “I really feel that my son knew what was going on and that everyone was there for him,” Barrens Moran said.

Instead of the usual bar mitzvah gifts or checks going directly to Max, Barrens Moran asked that guests make donations to Max’s third-party special needs trust, to enable the family to legally supplement vital government benefits such as Medi-Cal and SSI with private funds that can go toward ensuring Max with a high quality of life.

Barrens Moran encourages other parents of children with special needs not to let their kids’ disabilities stop them from having a full life. “Having a bar mitzvah for Max was part of my dream and it became a reality when I finally said I’m going to do it.”

Barrens Moran’s other dream is to create a home “for Max and for other children like Max [where they can] live in a loving environment. There will be about four or five kids at a time, and I’ll hire all the staff and the therapists,” she said.

The common thread that runs through all of these b’nai mitzvahs, however, is a powerful sense of holiness and love that permeates the sanctuary.

As Barrens Moran and Maxine, Max’s grandmother, described to me the beauty and moving nature of Max’s bar mitzvah, it reminded me of our son’s bar mitzvah, held almost a decade ago in Beth Am during Rosh Chodesh Hanukkah, which was also a unique, tailored service for his own set of special needs. We have also been guests at Valley Beth Shalom for so many of our friends who have children with special needs and also attended many wonderful special needs b’nai mitzvah through the Vista del Mar program called Nes Gadol, led by Rabbi Jackie Redner.

Abilities vary widely among teens with special needs, from those who can chant their haftarah flawlessly from memory, to some who use a voice-assisted communication device to speak, to others for whom dressing the Torah is a huge milestone. The common thread that runs through all of these b’nai mitzvahs, however, is a powerful sense of holiness and love that permeates the sanctuary as a group of people come together to honor the dignity and uniqueness of an integral member of the congregation.

Michelle K. Wolf is a special needs parent activist and nonprofit professional.