The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity
Bar Mitzvahs and the Dyslexic Child

These teens (above) created their own prayer books and researched a trip to Israel for their Bar/Bat mitzvahs. While a whole trip may not be realistic for many, the key is to be creative and engage them in the learning process.

A Rite of Passage &
Lessons on Learning Languages 

by Alix Boyle

Stacey, a mother of four in New Jersey, believes that Bat Mitzvah preparation for her daughter, Caroline, opened the door to academic success and greater self-confidence because of the individualized way she learned to study the prayers and Torah portion.

“Caroline listened to everything on a tape recorder and for the first time discovered this was a really good way to learn,” Stacey recalls. “The tutor broke everything down into small manageable chunks, and she learned the prayers just a few words at a time.”

In middle school, Caroline began taping her Spanish classes and learned that language in an auditory way. In college, she mastered Arabic.

“Caroline’s school requested testing at age 5 and the evaluator told us to forget about music lessons and to skip the Bat Mitzvah,” Stacey said.  The expert explained that learning to read in another language would put undue strain on our daughter. I didn’t do the music lessons but foregoing her Bat Mitzvah wasn’t an option in our family. Her great-grandfather was a rabbi and it would have been embarrassing if she was the only grandchild who did not become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. In the end, she did beautifully. Bottom line: it’s worth all the time and effort.

Parents and Jewish educators agree that children with dyslexia can have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, if they choose, and the experience of standing up as an adult in the Jewish community is a transformative one. Just as every person with dyslexia is unique, the Bar and Bat Mitzvah must be tailored to that particular child’s learning style.


Bar Mitzvahs, Then and Now

Back in the day, a boy became a Bar Mitzvah, or “son of the Commandments,” simply by attaining age 13 and reciting an aliyah, a blessing, before the reading of the Torah, said Melody Davis, a mother of three dyslexic children who helped them study for their b’nai mitzvoth. (See Davis’ tips at the end of the article.) Davis, who lives in Allentown, Penn., is studying to become a rabbi at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Riverdale, New York. A Bat Mitzvah for girls became common after World War II.

Now, the modern Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony has evolved into a one- to two-hour service, which is led mostly by the child. The child recites all of the prayers in the Sabbath service as well as readis from the Torah, the Haftorah, and makes a speech explaining the Torah portion. That’s a tall order for anyone, dyslexic or not.

Many children learn to read Hebrew; others do not. Some dyslexic children learn the Hebrew prayers by listening to them over and over on their iPods. Some rabbis and parents decide to shorten the Torah and Haftorah portions for children with dyslexia; some dyslexic children decide they want to read all the portions and work hard toward that goal.

Davis’s children each had a different learning style and after receiving the Torah portion and accompanying CD from the cantor, she individualized how each child would learn. For her son Jonathon, who has a kinesthetic learning style, she used clay to mold Hebrew letters and sand in which to trace the letters. Her daughter, Annelise, is an auditory learner and mastered the prayers by listening to them. Oldest son Spencer, who was not diagnosed with dyslexia until college, is a visual learner and worked very hard to learn to read Hebrew.

“If most children start preparing for the Bar Mitzvah a year in advance, I would say give a dyslexic child six months more than that,” Davis said. “I don’t think my kids learned more than four or five lines of their Torah portions. They did not do all seven aliyot, and I didn’t care.”

The Bar/Bat Mitzvah tutor’s job is to find the unique ability within each student and the best learning style for that particular student, said Rabbi Herbert Brockman of Congregation Mishkan Israel in Hamden, Conn., and a lecturer at Yale Divinity School.

“With any child, dyslexic or not, we start at the beginning and learn the verses of the Torah portion and go step by step as far as he or she can go,” Brockman said. “If he learns one verse, that’s great. I don’t think God is up there counting the number of verses.”

The lesson of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, for any child, is to succeed at something you work hard at. There are some students who don’t get a whole lot of positive reinforcement in the regular school classroom, Brockman said. The Bar Mitzvah is an opportunity to stand up in front of the community, feel acceptance and a sense of accomplishment. That success translates into other areas of life, including schoolwork and sports.

“Everyone learns very differently, some children have beautiful singing voices, some don’t. Some kids find Hebrew very difficult, others find it easy,” he said.

Brockman once had a student who couldn’t write his speech. In conversation, the child mentioned that he liked art. Brockman told the child a story about Betzalel, the first Biblical artist. So the 12-year-old Bar Mitzvah student asked if he could make a menorah instead of giving a speech. Brockman agreed and was shocked when the boy produced a 5-foot tall menorah made of wood with intricate carvings of people with arms up to hold the candles. When it came time for the speech, the student simply said, "I read about the first Biblical artist and here’s my speech" and presented the menorah to the congregation, where it still stands today.

“It was utterly amazing,” Brockman recalled. “It doesn’t matter if you are dyslexic; it’s about finding your special ability and honoring you as part of the congregation.”

Instead of giving a speech, one 12-year-old Bar Mitzvah student carved an intricate menorah, after studying the first biblical artist.

Learning Hebrew

Marion Green, a teacher at Hebrew College in Newton Center, Mass., has developed a way to learn Hebrew that she says works for almost anyone with any learning style --- and has even taught this method on the computer to non-verbal children with autism-spectrum disorders.

Before studying the prayers, students should learn the Hebrew letters first by coloring in a set of Hebrew flash cards, memorizing the names of the letters and the sounds they make. The flash cards have mnemonics on the back, such as “bet is a ball in a box” (see illustration below). These mnemonics help the students remember how to read and write each letter.

Because the text in the prayer books tends to be small, Green also makes her own prayer books by typing the prayers into the computer, enlarging the text, and putting them in binders.

Tips for a successful Bar/Bat Mitzvah

  1. Teach your child as many Hebrew prayers as you possibly can, beginning in kindergarten or before. The Shema and the V’ahavta will be used in any worship service, including the Bar Mitzvah. If you don’t know the prayers, have your cantor make a CD that you can listen to together in the car.

  2. Find out if the Jewish Federation in your area has a special education program for Jewish learning.

  3. Be honest; tell your child’s Hebrew school teacher that he or she is dyslexic.

  4. Use DavkaWriter, a Hebrew-English word processing program, to enable you to manipulate Hebrew text. Enlarge the Torah portion; Davis likes 22-point type.

  5. Color-code tricky words in red.

  6. Break each phrase of Hebrew down; learn three words at a time.

  7. Start at the end of the Torah portion. It’s important for a child to have a strong finish.

  8. Begin Bar Mitzvah training six months earlier than usual; dyslexic children need more time.

  9. Remember that Hebrew is a concrete language with few irregulars. What you see is what you get.

*some names have been changed to protect the privacy of the people interviewed