A couple of years ago, our family celebrated my parents’ 50th anniversary with a beautiful Shabbat service followed by Kiddush lunch. We hired a teenager to play outside with our son, who has a sensory processing disorder, receptive expressive language disorder, hypoglycemic issues, and possible ADHD. A cousin said to Charlie afterwards in a sarcastic way, “When I was your age, I had to sit in the whole service. I guess times have changed.”
Yes, times have changed. Now we meet children where they are, not where we think they should be.
As Charlie approaches the age of 11, I’ve acknowledged a sad truth: When we talk about our history and our customs and why we keep them, we leave out children with special needs. It doesn’t occur to us that there will be kids who simply can’t comply with all the rituals that we ourselves grew up observing.
At Shabbat dinner, we fight to get him to wear a kippah and compromise at wearing it for the prayers and taking it off during the meal. When we bless him with the words “May God make you like Ephraim and Menasche,” he doesn’t want to be touched or kissed on the head, but he will sometimes let us touch his shoulders. If we start dinner later than planned, we put food on his plate before reciting the blessings in order to avoid a meltdown.
At our daughter’s bat mitzvah, her fantasy was that her little brother would be a fully participating member of the congregation. In reality we hired another teenager, this time to sit behind us during the service in case Charlie needed a break. He stayed in to lead his part, which was in English. His sister stood next to him and rubbed his back saying, “Good job buddy.” After that he left and we basked in the glow of that moment and were able to enjoy the moments that followed as our daughter shined on the bimah.
Charlie has made incredible strides both as a Jew and as a wonderful little man to whom things don’t come easily. He has a modified Hebrew School schedule of two hours a week thanks to our incredibly inclusive synagogue. But if there’s baseball practice or a game, that trumps Hebrew School and Shabbat services. I never thought I’d be a parent who didn’t put Judaism first, but I knew I’d be the kind of parent who would put my children first.
For Charlie, baseball is not only his passion, but it’s his safe place. He doesn’t have to worry that he can’t read as well as other kids or that he can’t sit still. With 11 other little boys around him, he feels inundated with friends even if none of them hang out with him at school. Baseball is a gift, and as long as Charlie gets excited every time he unwraps it, we’ll keep giving it to him.
When it isn’t baseball season, if you’re a regular on Saturday mornings you’ll see a very nicely dressed little boy hanging out in the lobby or on the playground. He loves to dress up and knows why he’s there, but is just waiting to eat all the baked goods at lunch. You might also see him wander into the sanctuary asking me if he can play on my phone. I’ll say “No, not on Shabbat,” and he’ll scowl at me, storming off as if we haven’t had this conversation 200 times.
If we are Facebook friends you’ll see pictures of him playing baseball and perhaps an anecdote about that time he asked why Hitler hated Jewish people, or how we’re all “related to God.” You won’t see a straight A report card, or pictures of him in the Purim play, but you might see him dressed as Darth Vader, or John F. Kennedy—he’s quirky like that.
His sister honors her brother and his differences. She doesn’t always like his behavior or understand it, but she loves him and wants him to succeed. Through her eyes we’ve learned to appreciate the way Charlie sees the world and celebrate his baby steps that are slowly turning into giant leaps.
He’s shared that he’s afraid to have a bar mitzvah because he’ll mess up and everyone will laugh at him. His sister’s day had over 300 guests in attendance. We know his will be different. We may do a Havdalah service with intimate friends and family. He might read mostly English. But whatever it looks like, I know that once again we will bask in the glow of one of our children reaching a beautiful milestone at his own pace.