When the world shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic and we were forced to have my twins’ b’nai mitzvah on Zoom, it ended up being a blessing in disguise. Truly, I believe that we would not have had the same level of success in person. Why? Because one of my twins is autistic.
How does a non-verbal child with autism get through his own bar mitzvah? What does he understand about the ritual? Is it even meaningful for him to have one? These are the questions we have been grappling with for the past two years, ever since we got the date for my twins’ b’nai mitzvah. At the time, June 13, 2020, felt far in the future. But it came quicker than we realized.
My daughter, Fiona, was ready. She gleefully started Hebrew school at age 6 to prepare for this special day. She is also dedicated to her Jewish sleepaway camp, where she has learned the songs, the rituals, and the joys of Judaism. In other words, she was more than ready before the pandemic hit.
My son, Quentin, had no idea what he was in for. Sure, he had attended a few bar/bat mitzvahs, but he usually couldn’t sit through the service and we just let him play quietly somewhere outside. Because he has been non-verbal for most of his life, he has never expressed a need to have one of his own. His behavioral and communication needs have been too great to even consider Hebrew school, but he has celebrated the major Jewish holidays at home and has attended some special needs services at our synagogue. This has been the extent of his exposure to Judaism. A bar mitzvah for him would take a lot of practice with just the basics of sitting still in the sanctuary.
So, when we got the b’nai mitzvah date (pre-pandemic), our first question to our clergy was: Is it even worth it to include him if Fiona leads the whole thing?
They answered with a resounding: Yes! In fact, we learned that a Jewish child automatically becomes a bar or bat mitzvah at the age of 13 without doing anything! Our modern-day rituals have included reading from the Torah as a formality, but anyone can have a ceremony to celebrate this landmark age.
This did a lot to reassure us that Quentin does not have to do anything special in order to be honored on this special day. Still, the next big question was: What, if anything, should Quentin do at the b’nai mitzvah alongside his sister?
It was clear from the beginning that Fiona could lead the whole thing, but it felt wrong not to give Quentin at least a small role. We were going to make it simple: He could read the blessings before and after a Torah portion, in English. We almost left it at that, but something in me was not satisfied. Then, one day, I had an epiphany: Quentin was starting to teach himself American Sign Language. There was something about using his hands to talk that appealed to him; perhaps making words with his hands was easier than speaking them.
We chose the Shema for him to sign while his sister chanted. That beautiful prayer, chanted while holding the Torah, seemed like the perfect solution. Listening to the mitzvah kid chant it on their own feels like a pivotal point in the service: “Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.” How does God “hear” a non-verbal child? Sign language would be Quentin’s way.
And then, mid-March, everything came screeching to a halt. The coronavirus had come to New York. We made the decision, as a family, to make this a Zoom Mitzvah.
A funny thing about being a parent of a child with special needs: You have a lot of practice in dealing with disappointment. You learn to adapt quicker than the average parent. So, was I disheartened? Yes, but I began to consider the upsides at having this ceremony at home. For one thing, getting Quentin to sit still on a pew was no longer an issue.
When the big day came, we were all nervous, but probably not in the same way that we would have been if it were happening in person. We took some photos in our garden before it began. Both of the kids were smiling and excited; just dressing up a little put us all in a great mood. Quentin could not tolerate wearing a suit, but during quarantine, everybody’s fashion sensibilities relaxed. Yet another win! He got to ditch the formal suit for a t-shirt with a tie printed on, worn with a suit jacket and khakis.
The beauty of the Zoom Mitzvah was that Quentin did not have to deal with the sensory overload of performing in front of a large group of people. Normally, he would be running around and asking everybody their names and then running away. On Zoom, he could sit with his iPad on mute and quietly ask me to identify everybody.
It was beautiful to watch both children put on their tallit in front of our homemade Ark (made of shipping boxes and a scarf). For the Torah processional, Fiona marched around our living room with a sleeping bag, which also represented her love for her Jewish sleepaway camp. Quentin followed her close behind and my husband and I pretended to be excited congregation members, eager to touch and kiss the Torah.
Fiona glowed in front of the laptop camera throughout the service. She got through all of it perfectly and earned great praise in the chat section of Zoom for her d’var Torah, about Miriam in quarantine. Clearly, Quentin was a bit more nervous, as his practiced sign language was not perfect, and he raced through the English versions of the prayers. But by the end, there was not a dry eye in those Zoom boxes.
My twins’ Zoom Mitzvah ended up being the highlight of our time in quarantine. Not only did it give Fiona a way to shine in a camera close-up, but it gave Quentin the calm and quiet of this big celebration to be himself. I might never know if he found this experience meaningful; he has never been able to express complex feelings to me. I do know he adored seeing all his friends and family on the screen that day. I also know that his smile was the brightest it’s been in a while.
Melissa Morgenlander is an adjunct professor at Brooklyn College where she teaches in the Children and Youth Studies program. You can learn more about her and her freelance projects on her website.