Somev­ery spe­cial sim­chahs

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - AUTISM KAREN GLASER

WHEN HE was a baby our rabbi used to tap him on the shoul­der and say, ‘I’m go­ing to bar­mitz­vah this boy.’ But years later, when it was time to start pre­par­ing Saul for the cer­e­mony, the rabbi said, ‘I can­not help you.’”

To this day, Susan Zur-Szpiro is un­sure what caused her rabbi to re­nege on his prom­ise to her autis­tic son, now 23. “He wouldn’t ex­plain. Maybe when it came to the crunch, he re­alised he ac­tu­ally had no idea how to go about it. But he also re­fused to di­rect me to some­one who might help. I felt shocked, be­trayed and en­tirely alone.”

There’s no doubt that guid­ing Saul to­wards his Jewish mile­stone was go­ing to take con­sid­er­able ex­per­tise. As well as be­ing autis­tic, he has a rare chro­mo­so­mal dis­or­der which has re­sulted in var­i­ous learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties and health prob­lems.

But none of this de­terred Avromi Fre­lich, the speech and lan­guage ther­a­pist Susan met at Saul’s spe­cial­ist sign­ing clinic. “From the first meet­ing, Saul re­sponded ex­tremely well to him so when I dis­cov­ered Avromi was also the chazan at Hamp­stead Gar­den Sub­urb Syn­a­gogue, I asked if he’d be Saul’s bar­mitz­vah teacher.”

Avromi agreed, and for two years he pa­tiently and painstak­ingly taught an autis­tic young­ster with min­i­mal speech to pro­nounce He­brew sounds, start­ing with ba­sics such as ‘maaah’, be­fore mov­ing on to the more com­plex ones like “ch”.

But on the week­end of the bar­mitz­vah, Saul be­came very ill, and Susan was un­sure if the event would go ahead. “He was so weak, he had to be phys­i­cally es­corted to the bimah,” she re­calls. “We didn’t know if he would ut­ter a sound. And then he opened his mouth and, with a mi­cro­phone to am­plify his weak voice, sang his whole por­tion, word per­fect. The pride, joy and re­lief were ut­terly over­whelm­ing.”

In the au­tumn of 2015, Daniel El­li­son was also fac­ing vi­car­i­ous pre­bar­mitz­vah nerves. Would his son, Fred­die, step up to the task and on to the bimah, or would he crum­ble un­der the cer­e­mo­nial pres­sure?

“Like many autis­tic peo­ple, if Fred­die doesn’t want to do some­thing, he sim­ply won’t,” ex­plains Daniel. “But in the event, he re­cited the bless­ings be­fore and af­ter the por­tion and at his bar­mitz­vah party he gave a speech in which he thanked me and his mother. Our guests dis­solved. And so did we.”

That pleas­ant sur­prise has been fol­lowed by an­other. “His bar­mitz­vah proved a turn­ing point,” says Daniel. “He now has a much stronger sense of self, and is bet­ter be­haved for it.”

But Fred­die very nearly wasn’t a bar­mitz­vah boy. “We are not par­tic­u­larly re­li­gious, but from the out­set our shul, North Western Re­form Syn­a­gogue, was so ac­com­mo­dat­ing, we were per­suaded to give things a go,” says Daniel. “They of­fered him one-to-one lessons and to­gether we agreed on what was, and what was not, re­al­is­tic for Fred­die to learn.”

Un­for­tu­nately, though, not ev­ery shul is so ac­com­mo­dat­ing to its autis­tic mem­bers’ needs. Some syn­a­gogues merely speak the lan­guage of in­clu­sion we all want to hear.

Ask Ian Fagel­son. His fam­ily used to be mem­bers of an Ortho­dox shul but when their autis­tic son, Jonathan, was ap­proach­ing bar­mitz­vah age, they left be­cause “they never made him feel wel­come.”

Hap­pily, at Ma­sorti’s New North Lon­don Syn­a­gogue (NNLS), where the fam­ily mi­grated, things could not have been more dif­fer­ent. “Jonathan was very ner­vous as a child, but has a very good mem­ory so learn­ing his por­tion and the bless­ing was not dif­fi­cult for him in­tel­lec­tu­ally. But it was go­ing to be very tough emo­tion­ally.

“The shul’s rabbi, Jonathan Wit­ten­berg, was so thought­ful about this. He lent us a Se­fer To­rah be­fore the start of Shab­bat, and af­ter he’d given the Satur­day morn­ing ser­vice, walked to our house where he con­ducted our son’s bar­mitz­vah cer­e­mony among fam­ily and close friends — with Jonathan hang-

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