by Susan Arndt
It’s hard to believe we just celebrated my son’s Bar Mitzvah. Zachary was born a beautiful healthy baby, but at the age of sixteen months, he started having seizures. Over the years, with all of the challenges he has faced being non-verbal and having developmental delays, I have always looked for ways of including him to the best of his ability. As his thirteenth birthday was fast approaching, I was despondent at the idea of not being able to celebrate Zachary, because I felt a ‘traditional’ Bar Mitzvah was not going to work for him. Learning Torah was something he was not going to be able to do. Even though he does not understand words, he does understands tone of voice. He understands things on a visceral level and explores things through his senses. Knowing this, my mind was searching for a different way to mark his transition.
He deserved to be celebrated like any other child despite his disabilities. I wanted to celebrate his beautiful Jewish soul and do it in a way that would work for him with all of his developmental challenges. The idea of celebrating Zachary reaching the age of Bar Mitzvah with an immersion in the mikveh, a place where many transitions in life are commemorated, was an idea that came about at a Jewish support group for parents of children with special needs. I knew it was a way of celebrating him that he could participate in and enjoy.
The morning of his Bar Mitzvah came and we gathered family and friends outside in the atrium between the two mikveh pools at Mayyim Hayyim. The small window above the closed door of the mikveh carried a beautiful niggun, a wordless Jewish melody; our guests were singing as Zachary and I entered the waters of the mikveh. Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman, who trained as a Mikveh Guide, helped us craft the ceremony and officiated that morning. With her help, we decided upon two blessings that would be said for my son’s immersion, both of which my husband sang beautifully by the mikveh. As we left, once again, our guests sang a beautiful niggun to us. The color and lights of the mikveh and the beautiful sounds of both our guests and my husband singing were something that Zachary truly enjoyed. He knew it was a special moment for him.
We quickly dressed and joined our guests. Surrounded by friends and family, my husband recited the prayer for putting on tallit, the Jewish prayer shawl, and placed it around Zachary’s shoulders for the very first time as a Bar Mitzvah. With all of his developmental challenges, we found a Jewish way to celebrate him with family and friends. The whole event was beautiful and something that we as a family will always cherish.
Susan Arndt is a mother and advocate for Zachary and has been involved in the special needs community volunteering as an officer for her town’s Special Education Parent Advisory Council and the Parent Advisory Group at her son’s school. She is the Gala Committee Chairperson for the Federation for Children with Special Needs and a Corporator Elect for the Perkins School for the Blind. Her background is in interior design and home staging.