Somevery special simchahs
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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