B’nai Mitzvah for all Young People


This is part of a series of essays in honor of Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month.

When my son George was an infant, before he was diagnosed with autism and an intellectual disability, I remember taking him with me to a friend’s son’s Bar Mitzvah and holding him on my lap through the service. People around us turned to coo at him–he loved being at services, smiled and bopped on my knee as we sang the morning blessings. He napped quietly through most of the Torah service and I loved being there in the sanctuary with him breathing softly against my chest. It’s natural, especially when you’re parenting a baby, to imagine what life will be like as your child grows up…and sitting in that sunny sanctuary, so full of love and excitement for the Bar Mitzvah boy, I thought about what George’s Bar Mitzvah would be like, too.

When George’s development took a different path from what we expected, we needed to examine our projections. George needed early intervention, a special preschool program, supports throughout his day. And yet, what helped my husband and me stay grounded and hopeful was the realization that what we still wanted for him hadn’t changed. We wanted to create a life in which George would know he was loved and treasured for just who he is–and that he would be surrounded by a loving community.

The path to his Bar Mitzvah took careful planning and thought and I am so grateful, four years later, that we could bring our family and friends together for that moment to celebrate the beautiful person whom George is. I am delighted to learn about the beautiful B’nai Mitzvah ceremonies being created across the world for children with a variety of learning, cognitive, emotional and/or physical disabilities. More and more parents are clear that this ritual belongs to their child, too.

In my work at Jewish Learning Venture, we have created a training program for tutors and clergy to teach approaches to accommodations and modifications to both the tutoring process and the B’nai Mitzvah service itself. I am so encouraged, every time we do the training, to experience the openness and receptivity of cantors, rabbis and tutors who want to learn how to make B’nai Mitzvah meaningful for all young people in our communities.

B’nai Mitzvah shouldn’t be the end of Jewish education and engagement for any young person–and hopefully becomes a pathway forward to finding a lifelong place in Jewish community for all of our children.

Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer edits The New Normal: Blogging Disability. She directs Jewish Learning Venture’s Whole Community Inclusion, where she works with synagogues and schools across the Philadelphia Jewish community.

More from The New Normal here.