March 31, 2020

Nes Gadol calls its first autistic students to the Torah

Neal Katz runs up to the ark and opens the door. Blond-haired and bubbly, he points to the scroll, unable to articulate his desire.

“Do you want to touch the Torah?” Cantor Steve Puzarne asks.

The 13-year-old is autistic and nonverbal. Instead of using words, he mumbles enthusiastically.

It’s a typical Wednesday afternoon on the bimah at West Los Angeles’ Vista Del Mar, a onetime Jewish orphanage that evolved into one of the nation’s largest, most comprehensive child services centers. Puzarne and Neal are in the campus’ aging sanctuary as part of Nes Gadol, an effort launched by Vista Del Mar last February in conjunction with The Miracle Project to help children with varying degrees of learning challenges become sons and daughters of the commandment.

The cantor lifts the Torah out of the ark and into his own arms, resting its weight against one shoulder. He tells his student to kiss rather than handle it. Neal is carefully reverential as he leans in to make contact with the Torah’s cover.

“Do you want to try carrying it?” Puzarne asks.

But the teenager isn’t listening anymore. He takes off up the aisle, and Puzarne follows him outside, still carrying the Torah, hoping to reconnect with the boy in the foyer when he’s ready.

Neal’s mother, Elaine Hall, 50, is a children’s acting coach and founder of The Miracle Project, a theater and film arts program designed to help children with autism and other special needs. Hall said a bar mitzvah for her son seemed unrealistic until she received a phone call from Vista Del Mar CEO Elias Lefferman last October with the idea for Nes Gadol.
“I never conceived he’d ever have a bar mitzvah,” she said. “You never think about that.”

On May 28, Neal and 15-year-old William Lambert will become the first students from the group to be called to the Torah. For special-needs teens, the specifically tailored program represents a way to connect with a Jewish rite on their terms. And the parents say it’s particularly gratifying to find a way for their children to be included in the tradition.

Nes Gadol, Hebrew for “a great miracle,” is one of many outreach efforts in Los Angeles aimed at boys and girls with special needs, including synagogue programs like Temple Beth Am’s Koleinu, Valley Beth Shalom’s Shearim and Temple Aliyah’s Otzar. But Vista Del Mar’s program is the first nondenominational one, which organizers hope will allow them to reach special-needs families who might not have considered joining a synagogue for their child’s bar or bat mitzvah.

While Hall runs the program, she credits Vista Del Mar’s Lefferman with developing the concept. “He’s a visionary,” she said. “He’s really quite extraordinary.”

Nes Gadol is funded through a grant from the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation.
In addition to Hall, the program’s staff includes Puzarne, founder of Breeyah, which develops creative worship services throughout the country; Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer, who leads Ozreinu, a spiritual support group for families with special-needs children, and Jackie Redner, rabbi of Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services; Karen Howard, a music therapist; and Rachelle Freedman, a Jewish theater instructor. Volunteers and typical b’nai mitzvah students with mitzvah project assignments also participate in the program, and Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism), serves as its adviser.

Currently seven students are enrolled in the program’s first year, all of them boys who live at home. More than 80 percent of Americans diagnosed with autism are male.

Children diagnosed with autism typically exhibit impaired social interaction, impaired communication as well as restricted and repetitive interests and activities. Social interactions can be awkward and conversations can elicit unusual, incongruous responses. Many autistic children have repetitive body movements, attachment to objects and an aversion to changes in routines. The disorder is usually diagnosed between the ages of 2 and 3 and can range from mild or high-functioning to severe in degrees of affliction.

In California it’s the leading disability among children, ahead of cancer, diabetes and Down’s syndrome, the state Department of Developmental Services reports. One in every 166 children today is born with the disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and some studies are now putting that number closer to one in every 150 children.
While there are a number of theories regarding the rise of autism, no definitive cause has been identified.

Hall adopted Neal from Russia through Vista Del Mar when he was 2 years old, and she said his small size made him look to be about 9 months old at the time. He was diagnosed with severe autism shortly before his bris, at 3 years old.

At 7, Neal’s body movements were so out of control that Hall couldn’t keep pictures or mementos on the walls of her home because he would knock them down, and she didn’t have time to cook while he was awake, because she spent her time trying to engage him and keep him safe.

After traditional therapy failed her, she implemented a “floor-time approach” with Neal and joined him in his world. “If he wanted to spin, we’d spin,” she said. “When he wanted to stack toy cars, we would stack cars with him until he one day gave us one of his cars and made eye contact.”

Despite his linguistic challenges, Neal can verbalize some words, like “momma,” and communicates with a portable TypeSmart keyboard that vocalizes his thoughts for him.

Now in Santa Monica’s Lincoln Middle School, he is enrolled in five regular classes with the assistance of an aide and two classes for learning-disabled students. He even has two friends who are typically developing teens.

“Everything with autism just takes more time,” Hall said. “But he wants people to know what he thinks.”