Like any Jewish mother, Jillian Zacks just always assumed that when the time came, her twins, Max and Paige Duhl, would celebrate their b’nai mitzva by leading services for their congregation.
While both children are on the autism spectrum, which has presented some challenges, they are now ready and able to ascend the bima this April to lead Saturday evening services, as well as havdala, as b’nai mitzva at Temple Ohav Shalom in the North Hills.
“It was always a given that they would have a b’nai mitzva,” said Zacks, who worked with Rabbi Art Donsky, spiritual leader of Ohav Shalom, and the Agency for Jewish Learning, to find appropriate accommodations to help her children prepare for this important day in their lives.
“I think it is really good for kids with all different needs and at all different levels to participate in Jewish life,” Zacks said. “With the help of the AJL, they can work to get to this significant milestone.”
The Duhl children attend religious school on Sundays at Ohav Shalom, but because of their learning abilities, they have not studied Hebrew. They will be leading the services using transliteration.
“That was the major accommodation,” Zacks said.
The Duhl twins are tutored by teacher Katie Lang, who Zacks refers to as “a true angel,” and have benefited from the special needs services of the AJL, which provides a consultant to help the children navigate the religious school.
“AJL has always played an instrumental role with assistance, at Sunday school,” Zacks said. “AJL has just been amazing and supportive and has tied together what is such an important part of their lives.”
Any child in the Jewish community wishing to celebrate a bar or bat mitzva should be able to do so, regardless of his or her abilities, said Terry Feinberg Steinberg, director of special education services at the AJL.
“We have the resources in the Jewish community to support anyone in their life cycle events if they want to, even those who are not affiliated with a synagogue,” Steinberg said.
Ohav Shalom, which is located in Allison Park, has celebrated at least one special needs bar or bat mitzva a year since Donsky joined the congregation as its rabbi almost 15 years ago.
“We’ve done a whole variety, depending on the student’s exceptionalities,” he said. “We adjust the service to meet their needs, but also keep it relevant for the congregation. We’re a small enough congregation — and we’re very family oriented —and we understand that one size doesn’t fit all. We play to the student’s strengths.”
Ohav Shalom draws a significant number of families with special needs children to its congregation due to its inclusive reputation, as well as the reputation of its surrounding public schools, according to Donsky.
The North Allegheny, Pine-Richland, and Hampton Township school districts all tend to draw families that are seeking quality services for children on the autism spectrum because they offer strong support for those students. Jewish families drawn to those schools often join nearby Ohav Shalom, which for many years has had a faculty member trained in working with kids with exceptionalities, Donsky said.
The Duhl twins have already begun work on their b’nai mitzva projects. Paige is collecting allergen-free food for the North Hills Community Outreach, and Max will help prepare allergen-free food for the Oneg Shabbat that will follow the b’nai mitzva service. Additionally, Max is helping to coordinate Ohav Shalom’s Jewish Disability Awareness Shabbat service, which will be held Feb. 24, in honor of Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM).
Begun as a national project in 2008, JDAM marks February as a time for Jewish institutions — particularly congregations — to recognize and commit to including individuals with disabilities. The Agency for Jewish Learning works to promote JDAM in Pittsburgh.
Several area congregations have designated a date to celebrate JDAM, and AJL consultants will be visiting religious school classrooms with interactive puppet shows and children’s books focusing on disability awareness, according to Steinberg.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)