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.”