Over the years, I’ve been to countless bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, and while each one has been unique to the specific teen being honored, all of the services have been catered to the typical Jewish kid—one who can read some Hebrew, memorize a handful of prayers and makes a speech about his or her Jewish education. However, this past February, I had the honor of being part of a bar mitzvah that was unlike any other I had previously attended. My family friend, Max, became a bar mitzvah without speaking a single word.
Max has no official diagnosis, but he’s lived 13 years as a nonverbal boy with very limited mobility. His mom, Jody, is a superhero. She’s been his biggest cheerleader since the day he was born and has always believed in him. After hundreds of visits with doctors, several major surgeries, and intense physical therapy, Max has gained the ability to walk on his own, though it’s still not easy. He led his bar mitzvah service from a chair on the bimah, without uttering a word.
Max captivated the room with just his eyes, which glimmered with light and reacted differently to each part of the service. Although he is learning sign language, Jody says he mostly speaks with his eyes. I agree. The smile on his face lit up the entire sanctuary with palpable feelings of love and appreciation. His joy is infectious, and it’s obvious that he has an incredibly kind soul.
[Max’s mother] wanted to create an opportunity for [her son] to be acknowledged by his Jewish community, surrounded by his family and friends.
Many people asked Jody why she insisted on going through so much work to create this non-traditional service to honor Max. She explained that since she doesn’t believe he’ll ever get married or formally be celebrated as a Jew at any other time during his life, she wanted to create an opportunity for him to be acknowledged by his Jewish community, surrounded by his family and friends. According to Jewish law, a boy becomes a bar mitzvah—a man in the eyes of Jewish tradition—at age 13; nowhere does it state that children with special needs are excluded or exempt from this rite of passage.
It bears noting what an incredible mother and woman Jody is. She has pretty much raised Max as a single mother, with help from her wonderful mother Maxine and support from her sister Carrie. Jody has been a gleaming example of a strong, Jewish woman ever since I’ve known her, and hearing about her unwavering dedication to Max is truly inspiring. From their hour-long car rides to physical therapy to the re-configuration of their home to accommodate Max’s needs, there is truly nothing Jody wouldn’t do to put a smile on his face and make their lives just a little bit brighter. Watching her savor every moment with Max has taught me not to take anything I have for granted, especially the fearlessly loyal women in my life like Jody.
Jody and I are blessed to be members of a Reform synagogue that makes dreams, like Max’s bar mitzvah, a reality. When she approached our rabbi and cantor about her idea, they said that they’d absolutely find a way to make it happen. It became an “all hands on deck” kind of service, in which various cousins, relatives and friends pitched in to read from the Torah, recite prayers and share blessings with Max and with the congregation.
I’ve never witnessed such a moving and meaningful transition from childhood to Jewish adulthood. I was honored to sing a duet with my sister during the ceremony, and while it was something we’ve sung together at multiple services, it took on new meaning as I watched Max react to the music. He might not have known the true meaning of “Adon Olam,” but the energy filling the room was so remarkable that he knew it meant something celebratory and unifying. It was extremely powerful to look out at a crowd and know that each person was there to support Jody and celebrate her incredible son. It’s one thing to know that it takes a village, but it’s entirely different and a much more meaningful experience to see the entire village in front of you with outstretched arms and open hearts.
Dorrit Corwin is a junior at Marlborough School in Los Angeles, Calif.
Editor’s Note: This content was produced in partnership with the Jewish Women’s Archive.