“She really should be attending Gesher L’Torah,” the teacher told me. She continued, “They have a better handle on kids like Debbie.”
“A better handle? Why? Last year you marveled at how well she did in your class. You know this year has been more difficult because of Debbie’s recurring strep. That’s why we finally had her tonsils removed in March. I even asked if you could waive some of your fees since she has missed so much Hebrew School, and I understood when you said no since this class is part of your private business. I apologized when she spit on you in the bathroom. She was scalded by the hot water while washing her hands and lashed out at the nearest person, which happened to be you. And remember, you told me that I didn’t need to accompany her to the bathroom to wash hands. I’ve been shadowing Debbie since she started here so that she would be successful, and now you’re telling me that she needs to go to a private Hebrew School for kids who have special needs? We are done here!”
Five years ago, I took both Joey and Debbie out of Hebrew School after Debbie had spit on her Hebrew Schoolteacher. Joey attended a privately run class held at our local library once a week and Debbie attended twice a month. I shadowed her and acted as her one-on-one in the name of success and inclusion. The first year she did well. She participated in all of the activities and managed to learn a little bit about the customs of Judaism. During her second year, she came down with strep. She didn’t just have it once. She had it four times in four months! Strep was living on Deb’s tonsils, so in March we had her tonsils removed.
Since she was constantly sick, she missed a great deal of Hebrew School. Like many children on the spectrum, Debbie thrives on routine. Missing two months in a row of Hebrew School threw her out of that routine, and when she scalded herself washing her hands, she reacted by spitting on the teacher. Her teacher was upset and offended. Spitting is gross and offensive, I agree … but given that Deb was out of the routine and I wasn’t with her, I understood why she reacted the way she did. I didn’t excuse it, but I got it. So when instead of helping her readjust to the routine of Hebrew School, her teacher told me she needed a special program, I balked. I was angry. Debbie deserved to be included, and I didn’t like being told otherwise.
I did do a huge disservice to both Joey and Debbie by withdrawing them from Hebrew School. Because I felt as though I was out of options, neither child went to Hebrew School after that. Joey received tutoring for a little over a year and became a Bar Mitzvah at the end of November 2013. Debbie sat through those lessons with Joey, but that’s not the same as attending actual Hebrew School classes. I could go on and on about my guilt about that, but I won’t because it is what it is. My focus right now is on the immediate, and the immediate is that Debbie is going to come of Bat Mitzvah age next March.
It’s hard to believe that my baby will be 13 years old next year. After the Hebrew School debacle, I put thoughts of Debbie having a Bat Mitzvah out of my head. Ironically, I went to the exact place her teacher had gone. I watched my daughter run out of my cousins’ bar mitzvah services. She refused to sit through any kind of synagogue holiday service as well. And parties? Those kinds of events have never gone well. But then something changed.
We spent a little over a year getting ready for Joey’s Bar Mitzvah. At first Deb would only sit for about five minutes of the lesson. Then slowly but surely she would sit for longer periods of time. Prior to Joey’s Bar Mitzvah, during Rosh Hashanah services, Deb sat for the entire hour-and-a-half service. Then she sat and participated during Joey’s entire two-hour service and had a great time at his party afterwards.
Following Joe’s Bar Mitzvah, Deb sat through my cousin’s wedding and t two additional cousins’ Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. I was floored, but I still wasn’t thinking she could a go through with a Bat Mitzvah service herself. Yes, I was limiting my own child. I was doing exactly what I preached against. Why? I don’t know. Maybe I was scared. Maybe because she would say, “No,” whenever the subject came up and it was easier to just go with that. Ultimately, however, Debbie’s younger cousin changed my mind.
My cousin recently got her date for her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. As we started talking about the logistics of planning an affair of this magnitude, I started asking myself why I wasn’t in the process of planning Debbie’s. What do I need to do to convince her that she can have a bat mitzvah? How do I get the picture of the big party with clapping out of her mind?
Vince and I started talking about how we could help Debbie process the idea of her own Bat Mitzvah and replace the current picture in her brain with a new one. I changed my approach. Instead of asking her, I started describing how her special day would look. We talked about having a little party with only her favorite people. We told her there would be no clapping. In fact, that was the first thing I promised her! As we talked about sitting for lessons and practicing, it occurred to me that Debbie might not do an entire service. It doesn’t matter because anything she does will be nothing short of awesome because she will be fulfilling a long-standing, time-honored Jewish tradition.
That was my defining moment. Debbie should; Debbie can; Debbie will stand before her family and complete the Mitzvah (good deed) of having a Bat Mitzvah. It may have to be altered and tailored to fit her needs, but she will do it because she can do anything with proper support and guidance. The only limits on Debbie are the ones that I, along with others, impose upon her. No more. We are pushing past the limits because that’s what she deserves!
xoxox ~ Julie