How to Plan a Bar or Bat Mitzvah for a Child with Special Needs

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Planning a bar or bat mitzvah is stressful for everyone, but when your child has special needs, there are more factors you need to plan for, from sensory issues to large crowds. But don't let this deter you from celebrating your child's mitzvah! A Long Island expert shares tips for planning a bar or bat mitzvah for your child with special needs.

boy celebrating bar mitzvah
The planning process for a bar mitzvah often starts 2 years ahead of the big event.

Celebrating a child’s bar or bat mitzvah is a source of great pride for all Jewish families. Planning the milestone for a child who has special needs is often a source of added stress. It doesn’t have to be, though. With the right planning and focus, your child can do this, and you can celebrate this joyous occasion with all the same pride and joy as any other family.

Tina Moreno, assistant director of community relations for The Family Center for Autism in Garden City, Long Island, recalls the time she helped plan a successful bar mitzvah for a boy on the autism spectrum, Jordan: “His mom was very discouraged, and she said she didn’t have the strength to go through with the whole process,” Moreno says. “And I kept telling her, ‘We’re going to get through this. You’ll see, he’s going to be successful.’ And in the end, he felt great, and it’s a memory that is forever embedded in his soul.”

For starters, relax—and be patient.
Show your child that you believe in him—that you know he is going to complete his bar mitzvah and that he’s going to do it in style—and he’ll believe you. Conversely, if you allow him to catch on to any sort of reluctance, he’ll start doubting himself. As with so many things, you’re the parent, and this begins with you.

The typical bar/bat mitzvah already takes about a year or often more to complete; you need to be prepared to put in even more time—and not necessarily for your child’s preparation, but for compiling all the right resources. The most time-consuming aspect of the behind-the-scenes preparation is to find a synagogue with a rabbi or cantor who is willing to work with you and your family.


Be prepared: Many synagogues will tell you no.
They’ll tell you that they’re not equipped to handle all that goes into throwing a bar or bat mitzvah for your child—and that’s okay. It’s better to know this early in the process. So don’t fight it. Instead, move on and keep looking. The right synagogue is out there; it just may take a bit of time (and travel) to discover.

If you need help finding a place, don’t be afraid to ask! Start out by asking your family and friends if they have any recommendations, or seek out the assistance of professionals such as Moreno and her colleagues at FCA. Regional websites such as MitzvahMarket.com are also equipped to help families of all types with their planning.


When you find the right place, you’ll know it.
“They embraced any type of student that wanted to be educated,” Moreno recalls of Jordan’s synagogue.“ Jordan had the comfort of a rabbi and a cantor that were going to make him successful and were going to look at his strengths and not his deficits. And they tailored the whole experience to not cause a stressor in the life of the family.”


Be resourceful—beyond your resources.
Once you have the right resources in place, it’s imperative that you take a step back and look at your child with a critical lens. “What are her strengths? What are her weaknesses? What can you tap into that’s something unique about your child?” Moreno prompts.

For Jordan, being in a cavernous space in front of a large crowd was not ideal. “It was decided that he was not going to do his Haftorah in the big sanctuary,” Moreno recalls. “The synagogue had another room where they do a more intimate Friday night service, so we set that room up so he could be in a smaller environment that wasn’t intimidating. We had a very small group of people, no photographer. And he wore his best friend’s suit because it had ‘special powers’ and was going to help him be successful.”

The family set Jordan up for success by creating an environment conducive to his needs, and by weaving in just a wee bit of ‘magic.’

For the party, they tapped into Jordan’s love of boats and found a daytime luncheon cruise around Manhattan that had a caterer willing to tailor the menu to accommodate Jordan’s food preferences. Before the big day, Jordan’s parents took him to the boat, walked him all around and showed him where they were going and what they would be doing. Once party time hit, he was comfortable and familiar with his surroundings, and he was able to relax and enjoy his celebration.

“We practiced and set up a schedule, and there were no surprises,” Moreno says. “Everything from the table decorations to what his invitation looked like—he was part of the process. We knew that he didn’t want to stay in a suit during the party, so we put him in a red t-shirt and red Converse sneakers. We made him successful.”

With just a little bit of organization, a lot of perserverance, and a healthy dose of faith, your child can be just as triumphant as Jordan.

Tips & Tools

Mitzvah Organizer, a new, comprehensive, web-based b’nai mitzvah planning software option, keeps all your resources in one place—and tabulates expenses, generates seating charts, and can be shared via the cloud with others helping you plan. For more information or to download, visit mitzvahorganizer.com ($69.95).


Communion on the horizon? The keys to a successful bar/bat mitvah are easily transferable to milestones in other faiths such as the Christian Sacraments of Communion and Confirmation. “Give your child as much information as possible about the event beforehand, keep the numbers small, and schedule your party or celebration for a short period of time,” suggests Charisse Carchedi, a New York mom of a child who has autism. “And if you have a party at a restaurant, be sure there is a place where your child can go for some quiet time if needed.”

 

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