Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in e-Jewish Philanthropy.

In August 2015, Jewish Learning Venture’s Whole Community Inclusion initiative held its first-ever training program for B’nai Mitzvah tutors on how to make modifications and accommodations for students with disabilities. Though many synagogue education programs are becoming more welcoming place for students who have learning, physical and/or developmental disabilities, not enough attention has been paid to how to best adapt the synagogues’ B’nai Mitzvah preparation process for these students. Jewish Learning Venture’s mission focuses on creating systemic change and strengthening Jewish institutions, and we realized that in our local Philadelphia community, there exists a need to train B’nai Mitzvah professionals in a way that will better support students and their families, allowing them to better integrate into the fabric of synagogue life.

Consider these very different B’nai Mitzvah students and think about whether your congregation would be able to provide the necessary supports for them – and for their families – to experience a meaningful Bar/Bat Mitzvah:

  • Melissa, who has ADHD , has attended synagogue services regularly since she was a baby and has attended a supplementary religious school since kindergarten. Only when she started private tutoring for her Bat Mitzvah did her parents discover that she had never actually learned the alef-bet in school and lacked motivation to focus on Hebrew language;
  • Evan is a young man who has Cerebral palsy, resulting in some cognitive delays and visual disabilities. Evan’s challenges include limited motor control, extreme anxiety, and visual challenges. Evan’s strengths include being a strong aural learner and being invested in the Bar Mitzvah process – he is a self-advocate and is able to express to others what he needs to succeed.
  • Lee and Ava are brother and sister, one year apart from each other. They both have intellectual disabilities, are on the autism spectrum, and don’t communicate verbally. They learn with a resource teacher at their congregation’s school and will use a communication device on their iPads to share their aliyah blessings at their B’nai Mitzvah.

Each of these students’ needs, as well as their families needs, are unique; there is not one approach to adapting and modifying the B’nai Mitzvah tutoring process and service for children with special needs. Because of this complex reality, we created a training for synagogue professionals that empowers them to address their students’ learning challenges and to create appropriate modifications based on both those challenges and the students’ strengths.

Over the course of two days, we shared ways to teach prayer and Torah reading and options for crafting a D’var Torah for children with diverse learning needs; we recommended ways that the tutors and clergy can invite support and information from the professionals (including speech and occupational therapists) who work with students; and we addressed the ways that the expectations and goals for B’nai Mitzvah students can be discussed in productive ways among educators, clergy, parents and ultimately the Bar/Bat Mitzvah student.

When we first announced our training, we had hoped that 10-12 tutors from our area would join us – knowing that it’s not easy to take two days away from regular work responsibilities to attend an intensive training. We were delighted by the response to our announcement and chose to cap the program at 25 participants to allow for optimal sharing. Participants included cantors, tutors and educators from our Greater Philadelphia area, Cherry Hill, New York and even Boston. B’nai Mitzvah tutors often have no official training or peer group and part of the power was in creating a group of peer experts, some of whom have been working with students for decades. Participants shared immediate feedback about how they would return to their congregations and apply the learning from our training, including:

  • This training will help me approach students who may have special needs in a way that can help make Bar/Bat Mitzvah successful for them and meaningful for their family.
  • I will be better able to be an advocate for kids who need modifications.
  • This training will make me more effective with a wider range of students and families.
  • I will be able to increase the use of technology as an aid in my teaching.

We have since led three more trainings and are excited to announce our upcoming training to be held June 5 and 6th and are happy to talk with other communities about bringing our training to you. Click here to register.

Rabbi Michelle Greenfield is a 2012 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She lives in Philadelphia where she serves as Education Director at Kol Tzedek and does freelance and consulting work as a Jewish educator and chaplain. She is one of the leaders of Celebrations! and Mitzvah Menshes at Mishkan Shalom.