So we ran into a quandary earlier this year.
The Monster’s now eight years old… which means that we’re five years out from his Bar Mitzvah (in theory) and two years out from picking a date for said event. And yet, I’ve not the slightest idea of what we’re going to do about when we get to thirteen.
To be fair, as my mother would point out, you become bar/bat mitzvah by waking up on your thirteenth birthday, so in theory, the issue resolves itself. But that’s not quite the point we’re getting to.
Gateway, the Monster’s school, has an elective program on Wednesday afternoons that involves Jewish education, provided by an outside group that comes in for 90 minutes after the school ends to do some basic Jewish programming… and while they’re nice folks who definitely know how to deal with children with special needs, I’m not myself very sure that it’s preparing him at all for a meaningful Jewish life. It’s good for the cultural side, and it’s certainly giving him some enrichment, but I don’t know that they’re teaching him anything for synagogue life or for holiday customs, et cetera. Which means that it’s time for us to enroll him in a real Hebrew School.
As with camp (which I discussed over at the JCC’s blog some time back), things have changed drastically since I was a student in Hebrew School… or a teacher there, for that matter. I don’t remember anyone with special needs in the religious school I attended back in the Eighties, to be honest, back in the dark ages when it seemed like the major way we dealt with such children was to segregate them completely from the rest of the environment. I do remember hearing about afternoon bn’ai mitzvot during the Mincha (afternoon) service which is shorter and, therefore, takes less preparation, but… these things really somewhat escaped my notice.
I can’t be so oblivious now.
Last Sunday, the Monster went to the first day at BINA, a program for students with special needs at the synagogue my family attends. (Which is to say that it was also an excuse for me to come along for a bit and observe, so I could see what we’re getting him into.) The class is small and most of the children are a little older than the Monster, with a lot of helpers and a teacher who is a trained professional with expertise in working with children with special needs. While there seemed to be a bit of the same kinds of activities that he gets from the Wednesday afternoon program, I did see them starting to work with the children on some of the prayers that they’d say when they’re in the service, and on letter recognition of the aleph-bet.
But still, my biggest concern being his being able to function meaningfully in a synagogue…
I started attending religious school myself when I was five (and had the advantage of a parent who was herself one of the teachers there by the time I was six), and moreover, Hebrew school changed a lot between when I attended and now. Back then, the emphasis was on plain academic learning, both about the holidays and the Hebrew language with a mingled emphasis on conversation and liturgical awareness. It was considered a reasonable expectation in my congregation that I wouldn’t only be able to read the prayers and participate in services, but that I could manage some very basic conversational exchange in Hebrew, and that I’d have a good rounded background on Israel and Judaism. Today, it feels a lot more like camp, with a lot more singing and games and arts-and-crafts… which is all good and everything, save that I’m not sure how that advances the goal of preparing children – especially learners with difficulties like my son – for a meaningful synagogue life.
That said… the question perhaps is what my goals are for his participation, given that we’re talking about my child who’s largely non-verbal. I would like for him to be able to follow the prayers and sing along. I would hope that it’s something meaningful for him, though how one figures out what’s meaningful for any child – special-needs or no – is beyond me at this point. I want the religious side of his life to be something that he enjoys, the way his mother and I do, and that it’s something he can participate in.
But really? I have measurable, reasonable goals for the moment – starting to learn to recognize Hebrew letters, some basic understanding of the Jewish holidays and learning a couple of prayers, and the first steps towards preparing for an eventual Bar Mitzvah. And with that, I think the program at shul is the right place to be starting along that path.