Woman Helps Autistic Children Celebrate Bar and Bat Mitzvahs

For years, Jewish autistic children have been shut out of important religious rituals like bar and bat mitzvahs. But now, a woman named Elaine Hall has formed a group to give them the celebrations they deserve.

For many Jewish boys and girls, a bar or bat mitzvah is a traditional rite of passage that symbolizes their journey towards adulthood as they reach the age of 13. For most kids, it also serves as an opportunity to show off all their hard work in Hebrew school, to dance, to eat, and to score plenty of expensive gifts from doting aunts, uncles, and aging grannies.

But for children with autism, such complex rituals are often beyond their grasp. As they reach the threshold of adolescence, they cannot participate in the Jewish community’s symbolic coming-of-age festivity, and are left behind with no acknowledgement from the religious community.

Now, thanks to a Los Angeles woman named Elaine Hall, autistic children are finally getting their chance to stand proudly before their friends and family members in a synagogue, for their very own bar and bat mitzvah celebrations. Hall has an autistic son of her own named Neil, and has spent years using her background in drama to help bring Neil and other autistic children out of their shells, by directing them in theatre performances.

Elias Lefferman, an executive at a local nonprofit agency, knew of Hall’s work, and was concerned about the autistic children within the Jewish community. He asked her if she’d use her skills to develop a program to train autistic children for religious ceremonies, and she jumped at the chance. Coincidentally, her son Neil was approaching bar mitzvah age – and, along with four other boys, was one of the first to perform the ceremony.

Because many autistic children have limited vocabularies or are completely nonverbal, the ceremonies are a bit unorthodox. For Neil’s bar mitzvah, he wrote a speech, which his stepfather recited for him on stage. Prayers and songs had been programmed into an electronic device, which Neil played for his audience with the touch of a button.

Since the ceremony, Hall has noticed a striking change in her son’s behavior. “All the big decisions about what to do were Neal’s that day,” she told The Los Angeles Times. “He’s been this little mensch ever since.”

Other autistic children who’ve participated in the program are equally thrilled by the chance to take part in the important religious ceremony. One non-verbal boy, Dov Shestack, wrote a note to The Los Angeles Times: “Bar Mitzvah is the most important part of my life. . . . Tell people that people like me love to learn because we are a lot more like you than you think.”

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