The First Bar Mitzvah of Its Kind: Unique Computer Helps Multiple Disabled Boy to Participate Fully

A Michigan State University (MSU) telecommunications expert and his team are seeking to extend substantially the capabilities of the unique synthesizer-computer which made it possible for a cerebral-palsied boy–unable to talk or walk from birth — to participate fully in his Bar Mitzvah rite. It was the first such Bar Mitzvah of a multiple-disabled youngster in history.

Prof. John Eulenberg, director of the MSU Artificial Language Laboratory (ALL), discussed with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency — in a series of telephone calls from East Lansing — the unique computer-based ceremony which made it possible for Lee Kweller of Pittsburgh to present on November 2 before a selected audience, in a clear adolescent-sounding voice, all the elements of the traditional Bar Mitzvah ceremony.

Any Jew who might have happened to be present inadvertently that Saturday in the Helfant Chapel of Beth Shalom, a Pittsburgh Conservative synagogue, could not have helped but be flabbergasted at what he would have seen and heard, unless he also happened to be an advanced computer scientist.

There was the attractive young candidate, seated on the bimah at the keyboard of a computer which, responding to his fingered commands, emitted a normal adolescent boy’s voice, chanting the blessings before and after his Haftorah; the weekly portion; the Haftorah itself; Lee’s Bar Mitzvah speech, which he wrote; the chanting of Ashrei and Ain Kelohanu and a full kiddish. He did this with his left hand because his right hand is not adequately functional.

Eulenberg was asked whether the audience in the chapel, which included the boy’s grandparents and two great grandmothers, appeared to know that they were not witnessing a miracle — in the Biblical sense — but the product of a highly-specialized, experimental communications unit, plus the intense training and determination of the boy to learn to use it the way its MSU developers intended it to be used.

A FEW FIRSTS FOR A COMPUTER

He said a booklet was passed out to members of the audience to provide at least a minimum understanding of the “miracle.” The computer, at Lee’s command, declared for him: “I, too, have come to life, both in the tradition of my forefathers and in a very special way. I am able to speak with all of you; this marks the beginnings of a new world for me.”

Eulenberg said the Bar Mitzvah rite involved the first use of a talking and singing computer to perform a traditional Bar Mitzvah. It is also the first portable Hebrew-speaking computer and the first to sing in Hebrew.

During the rite, Lee paid tribute to his mother, who quit her position as a Philadelphia Symphony publicist to devote all her time to helping Lee “find his voice.” It took not only time and patience and personal courage but also years of speech therapy and go-ahead for a $30,000 computer program funded not by Lee’s parents but by contributions to the Lee Voice Project at the MSU language laboratory.

Eulenberg said the apparatus was “more than just a talking device.” He said “this computer creates new vistas for bright people like Lee. The pieces of technology were available, but Lee put it all together. He is the catalyst who can open the way for others who have been denied because of inability to speak.”

In preparation for his Bar Mitzvah, Lee mastered both Hebrew and the traditional Masoretic “trope” and laboriously programmed individual Hebrew letters and words into his machine — three lines of complex computer code for each corresponding line of Hebrew. Eulenberg said this was a very difficult task, requiring not only great determination but also great difficulty. He said Lee was “intellectually superior” and that, for Lee, “it is his great abilities that count, not his disabilities.”

Eulenberg added, “We created a special code so that Lee could type in the special Haftorah and blessings.” Lee had attended Hebrew school for years and knew the Hebrew elements of the Bar Mitzvah rite. He typed in on the keyboard his entire Bar Mitzvah speech in English.

Because the complex multi-level program enabled Lee to place words into the computer’s memory both alphabetically and phonetically, and because his portions of the two-hour rite were so lengthy and intricate, Lee programmed his entire performance before the ceremony. He then controlled the speech, volume and pacing of the voice recitation at the ceremony.

BROKE THROUGH THE PAINFUL SILENCE

In that unique ceremony, Lee broke through, in telecommunication terms, the painful silence which had been his destiny since birth. The boy, who usually gets around in a wheelchair, was held from behind by his stepfather, and walked determinedly to the chapel’s first row.

He was then helped to the computer-synthesizer. Eulenberg gave a brief introduction, commenting that Lee’s Bar Mitzvah on Shabbat Vayera was fitting, since it is a day that celebrates miracles. Both the Torah portion (Genesis 18-22) and the Haftorah (II Kings 4:1-37) concern children who otherwise might not have lived.

Eulenberg said the computer used by Lee was based on software for which he was the chief writer. Two other experts worked with him at the ALL — David Grover, a computer engineer; and Marcy Goldstein, who worked in the laboratory all summer and is now studying for a master’s degree in international relations at Washington University.

Eulenberg said Marcy created the set of Hebrew graphics. Explaining that “the computer we were using types words in English,” he said Marcy helped create the computer’s capacity to accept typing and storage of Hebrew letters, including all consonants, vowels and “trope” markings.

Eulenberg said the computer used by Lee was “based on software and circuitry which we have used in the recent past to develop Arabic, Chinese and Hebrew synthetic voices, in addition to the age-appropriate English voice.”

Lee worked on the computer at home for several months before the ceremony. He also visited the MSU laboratory. Eulenberg visited Lee’s home several times during the process of developing the software, modifying the machine, and teaching Lee how to feed material into the computer and how to instruct the computer to “speak” and “chant.” Lee’s model, the result of eight months of intensive programming work by Eulenberg, produces a startling approximation of the timbres of the human voice. Eulenberg, an associate professor of computer science, audiology, linguistics and speech sciences at MSU, has helped many persons with severe physical limitations to communicate by computer.

The Jewish telecommunications expert said Lee, his family, and he “recognize the importance of extending this technology for the use of others. I want to make sure that what was done for Lee will be made available to other cerebral-palsied persons.” He said the boy had told him that he wants to have put into the unit “all of the Jewish prayers so that he can pray daily.”

Eulenberg said such an expansion of the computer’s facilities would be part of a research program at MSU, which he told the JTA would cost upwards of $100,000 during the next three years.

The families of Lee’s parents, his mother, Beverly Morrow, and his stepfather, Michael Kweller, have obligated themselves for a substantial sum, he said. He said the parents were not wealthy. Some of the development costs have been met by contributions, he added.

Eulenberg said the historic Bar Mitzvah began when he made contact with Lee through the boy’s speech pathologist, Marie Capozzi Hinchcliffe, at the Pioneer school in Pittsburgh. The pathologist, who was in the audience for the ceremony, “knew I was Jewish, knew that I had an interest in the development of a Hebrew-speaking voice output communication aid.” He said she also knew about Lee’s strong desire to perform the Bar Mitzvah “in the traditional way.”

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