Michelle Steinhart: What A Bar Mitzvah Taught Us and Our Son

Original Article HERE

Ever since our son was diagnosed with autism, at age two and a half, I’d been wondering about his bar mitzvah. I come from a family of shulgoers who lead services, read from the Torah, and sing. My husband does, too. He and I have been teaching b’nei mitzvah for decades, and the question of our son’s bar mitzvah loomed large for 10 years.

When parenting a child with autism or any other developmental disability, the ordinary ups and downs of life seem much more extreme. Whenever Avi was struggling, my mind went to, “How will this boy have a bar mitzvah?” When he was thriving, I’d think, “He will be able to do so much!”
Well, Avi turned 13 this summer and he far surpassed any of our dreams and expectations. This did not happen because we are great parents or because he is such an exceptional young man. This happened because of all of the time, energy, hard work, and support put in by his therapists, teachers, behavioral consultants, one-to-one aides, counselors, family and friends.
This group effort started the moment he began receiving services at 8 months old.

A year ago, we couldn’t have imagined that he would lead Friday night services at camp, get called to the Torah and then do the same at a service in our community. And a speech? No chance. And yet…

Avi has been blessed to attend Camp HASC for the past six summers. We had the incredible experience of spending Shabbat at Camp HASC for Avi’s bar mitzvah. It was truly humbling to see how much each of the counselors and staff members love the campers, and how much energy they pour into every activity.

Avi’s counselor decided over a year ago that he can lead Shabbat services, and he worked with Avi at home during the year and at camp to make this a reality. Avi did an amazing job, and the outpouring of warmth, love and pride was overwhelming.

After Avi’s return from camp, we hosted our families for Shabbat and Avi put on a repeat performance for his grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and neighbors. During the dancing after L’cha Dodi, Avi left the men’s section and came over to me, saying, “I want to dance with Mommy!” He danced with me for a moment or two and returned to his position at the bima, where the Torah is read. A bar mitzvah mom’s dream come true.

At Avi’s bar mitzvah reception, he delivered a pre-taped speech, greeted guests, posed for photos, danced with all his friends and even put on an impromptu concert. One of the most moving moments, for me, was when Avi asked his Uncle Jeremy to come up and sing with him. They sang, arms around each other, a song about thanking God. This moment was a reflection of the relationships we’ve built and of just how much we have to be grateful for.

When raising a child with autism, the issues and difficulties are often front and center. This celebration helped us remember that there is so much good, too.

The theme of Avi’s bar mitzvah was gratitude, because we are so appreciative of everyone who supported us and Avi. This bar mitzvah taught us that we have no idea what Avi’s potential is. He can and will continue to surprise us and surpass our goals. It is our job to challenge him and believe in him, because he has taught us that with hard work and commitment, anything is possible.

Michelle has been working in Jewish Education and Jewish Special Education for over fifteen years, teaching in day schools and synagogue schools, serving as a counselor in summer camps, and as an advisor in youth groups. She has been at Temple Israel Center in White Plain since 1998 and has been the Director of Special Student Services since 2000.

Michelle graduated Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women with a B.A. Degree in Education and an Associate’s Degree in Judaic Studies. Michelle went on to earn her M.A. degree in Special Education at Hunter College. Michelle has led professional development sessions and is a 2002 recipient of the Grinspoon Steinhardt Award for Excellence in Jewish Education. Michelle and her husband Yaakov live in Rockland County with their four children, Avi, Shaina, Shael and Shaya. Michelle’s oldest child, Avi has an autism spectrum disorder.

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