The concept of Big Tent Judaism is something that drew me to JOI when I first applied here last summer. The idea that all are welcome—intermarried/interpartnered families, Jews of color, Jews-by-choice—is one that I was raised to believe in, yet rarely saw practiced before working here. Now, almost every day, an article arrives in my inbox telling of a community who is opening its tent to those on the periphery of Jewish life. One group that is often forgotten about, however, is the physically and intellectually disabled Jews who often get lost in the shuffle of a Jewish community, especially the children.
So, when I came across the story of Matthew Emmi, an autistic boy from Andover, Massachusetts, I was encouraged to hear about a synagogue that found a way to help him become a Bar Mitzvah. Matthew cannot read or write, let alone recite his Haftorah, but thanks to the wonders of an iPad, he was able to not only participate, but largely lead, the service for his Bar Mitzvah. By tapping various icons on the tablet’s screen, Matthew was able to “call up” members of his family to the bimah for their blessings, and, through the voice of the synagogue’s cantor, even “recite” the Sh’ma.
The day-to-day life of a family with an autistic child can be trying; there seem to always be new challenges to face and barriers to overcome. My mother has been a special education teacher for over 30 years, and watching her work with many autistic children in that time, I have learned that while they may all have the same diagnosis, each child is extremely different; as are the methods my mother uses and creates to reach them. What one child responds to may be what puts another into a tantrum. She practically rewrites the book for every student, taking time both at school and at home to come up with individualized techniques designed to suit each student. I have seen her retrofit special chairs, create new behavior modification plans, and work with parents via conferences and take-home journals. It takes an infinite amount of patience on her part, and commitment on the part of the parent(s), to improve the life of an autistic child. For many, they may never be able to function without the assistance of others, just as Matthew Emmi will never have a wedding or high school graduation. But that doesn’t mean they can’t have the same opportunities as other children.
My mother represents not just how impactful a good teacher can be, but also how important a supportive community can be. It would be easy to cast an autistic child aside, assuming that they just simply can’t live a normal life, let alone be a Bar Mitzvah. Instead of seeing what these children can’t do, my mother sees what they can do, just like Matthew’s teacher, Jamie Hoover, and his rabbi, Robert Goldstein. And because of their open-mindedness and patience, Matthew and his parents were able to experience something “normal” kids and their families often take for granted: being a part of the Jewish community.
Opening the tent may not be as simple as opening the door to your synagogue. It may take some work on the part of your community—planning Public Space Judaism programs like Passover in the Matzah Aisle, or finding a way to include the mentally and physically disabled members of your community in services and other programs—but the rewards are endless.
Congratulations to Matthew and his parents on his becoming a Bar Mitzvah, and, as Matthew would do, a high-five to Temple Emanuel for helping to make it possible.
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