So, Jewish life after Bar Mitzvah… It is hard to believe that there is life after Bar Mitzvah! Since our son Avi was diagnosed with autism as a toddler, we have been very goal-driven. What did he need to achieve his goals? How can we maximize his potential? What will his role be in the Jewish community, if any? Until quite recently, this was very much a blur. Some days the answers seemed clear; other days, we had no idea.
As I wrote in a blog a few months back, Avi’s Bar Mitzvah was more than we could have ever imagined.
In the moment, Avi far exceeded our expectations. The whole process taught us that Avi is a unique person who is full of life, joy, and spirituality. After watching Avi lead Kabbalat Shabbat and participate in the lively Shabbat meals, our teenage nephew said: "Avi, I have never met anyone as inspirational as you, whether your love of music or love of mitzvot, you are all inspiration.”
In analyzing what it means to be a committed Jew, I feel it is not only about each commandment and how it is fulfilled but about having a close and meaningful connection with G-d. This relationship is different for each and every person.
Since Avi’s Bar Mitzvah, he puts on Tefillin, with the help of his father, and he davens the prayers that he enjoys most. He continues to study with his Rabbi/tutor twice a week to further his knowledge and learn new prayers. Avi recites Kiddush and sings songs at our Shabbat and holiday meals, and he even recited the entire Kiddush at a Seder of 25 people, which is quite an accomplishment. In the summer, Avi attends Camp HASC, where he is able to attend shul daily and continue to build his prayer skills.
Going to shul in our community is still difficult for Avi. Our sanctuary is small and quite crowded. Avi does not enjoy being in a small space with a lot of people. On most Friday nights, Avi davens Kabbalat Shabbat at home with me. He sings and dances with his four-year-old twin brothers and he enjoys every minute. In those moments, I beam with pride, because Avi is not only connecting with G-d but is dancing and rejoicing with his brothers for the simple reason that it's Shabbat.
Occasionally, we have a minyan in our house on Friday nights and Avi leads the services for our friends and neighbors. We have one close friend who often asks us, “When is Avi leading us in davening next?” I always wondered why he cares. I know why it is important to us, but why does he enjoy it so much? He explained: “In watching Avi grow over the past number of years, I have come to understand that G-d loves all of us and serving G-d spiritually is not just our inheritance but our RIGHT… When my sons and I see Avi davening, it tells us we are all G-d’s children and responsibility and we are ALL His charges. And that we all have a need to connect with Him. So, thank you for sharing Avi with us and thank you for this minyan.”
So what is life for Avi after bar mitzvah? What is his role in the Jewish community? We now understand that Jewishly, it is about Avi connecting to G-d in the ways that are most meaningful for him. In terms of community, he has a quite a large role – that of inspirational figure. Avi’s role is to continue to inspire his family and community, whether in their davening or their appreciation of others or their acceptance of those with differences. Because of who he is, Avi plays a big and important role in the community in a way that a typical teenager wouldn't.
Our job as parents is to provide him with every opportunity to gain skills, shine, and of course shep a lot of "Nachas" along the way.
Michelle has been working in Jewish Education and Jewish Special Education for over fifteen years, teaching in day schools and synagogue schools, serving as a counselor in summer camps, and as an advisor in youth groups. She has been at Temple Israel Center in White Plains since 1998 and has been the Director of Special Student Services since 2000. Michelle graduated Yeshiva University's Stern College for Women with a B.A. Degree in Education and an Associate’s Degree in Judaic Studies. Michelle went on to earn her M.A. degree in Special Education at Hunter College. Michelle has led professional development sessions and is a 2002 recipient of the Grinspoon Steinhardt Award for Excellence in Jewish Education. Michelle and her husband Yaakov live in Rockland County with their four children, Avi, Shaina, Shael and Shaya. Michelle's oldest child, Avi has an autism spectrum disorder.