Saul’s Story

Saul’s Bar Mitzvah – By Saul’s mother, Susan

Saul is 18 and loves music.  Saul has a rare condition which means he has multiple needs, including learning disabilities, difficulties communicating and health problems.                              Please watch Saul’s story here

Here is Saul’s mother’s experience of planning a Bar Mitzvah for Saul:

Saul was 10, when youngest of our 3 girls had her Bat Mitzvah, and I turned my attention to planning Saul’s Bar Mitzvah.  I knew this would be a major undertaking, due to his severe disabilities.  Michael and I went to see our Rabbi who, from Saul’s earliest days, had tapped him on the shoulder and said “I’m going to bar mitzvah this boy”, years before we would have otherwise given it a thought.  It is impossible to describe the shock, disbelief and devastation we felt when he said “I cannot help you”.  So, the burden was left to me to work it out for Saul, and I was determined to succeed so that he would be included as a Jewish male as fully as possible.

I started to explore options, asking people for advice and trawling through the internet, searching for ideas on a bar mitzvah that would be achievable for Saul.  I could only find a few examples, mostly in the USA.  Then I heard about an Israeli-based programme for children with special needs and I went to Israel to meet the director, who encouraged me, showing me the resources they use, and a film of special bar and bat mitzvot they had held.

However, I could find no specialist teachers or schemes to support a bar mitzvah for Saul in the UK.  Most Hebrew teachers were not suitable – they did not have the experience or willingness to teach someone with disabilities.  Then I was told about a Chazan, Avromi Freilich, who had recently qualified as a Speech and Language Therapist.We went to meet him with Saul and, though he had no experience of learning disabilities, he knew about speech development.  More importantly, he had a warm, engaging personality, was willing to help us and he wanted to make it happen.  Saul and he shared a love of music. He used Makaton signing with Saul and our faces lit up – we knew that he would be right for us!

Saul had developed reading skills but almost no speech, so Avromi worked with Saul on his breathing and articulation, especially Hebrew sounds.  I made cards with tranliterations of first single words, starting with Baruch, Attah and Adonai,  in very large font and with pictures on them, to help Saul understand the abstract concepts in the prayers.  Gradually we moved on, a line at a time, to whole prayers.  I  laminated the text with non-reflective plastic and used coloured backing to help Saul differentiate the words and prayers.  Every little detail about how it was presented made a difference to Saul.  Slowly, we worked it out as we went along, with much perserverence and hard work, Saul learnt the 2 Brachot (prayers) for being called up.  And with his new found voice and skills, Saul then learnt the leyning for Rosh Chodesh (the New Month) too!

Since we would not be able to have Saul’s bar mitzvah in our own synagogue, we went to Avromi’s where we received much appreciated support.   We agreed to have Saul’s bar mitzvah on a Sunday, opening opportunities for using electronic equipment including a microphone.   Avromi suggested having a musician play in the background which made the ceremony more musical and augmented Saul’s little voice.  Saul, though with a weak voice, was word perfect and the tears of emotion and pride rolled down our faces as Saul sang confidently on the bimah.

Since Saul’s Bar Mitzvah,and five years on, our Shul has a new Rabbi.  He has been very supportive and other community members have also ensured that Saul has become more actively involved in the High Holiday service,  in the Youth Choir, playing drums in the synagogue Klezmer Band and he has even joined the Cheder at the age of 18.

For Saul’s 18th brithday, we finally wanted to have a ceremony in his honour in our own Shul.  The new Rabbi was very supportive, wanting to get to know us and especially Saul.  He was honest in acknowledging that he had not done this before  with a person with disabilities, but was open to our suggestions wanted to make it work.  Avromi taught Saul to sing a portion of the Maftir, and the brachot and Anim Z’meerot.  It was hugely emotional and cathartic for Saul’s voice to be heard in our own synagogue and to be finally blessed by our Rabbi.  We cried and laughed with pride and joy.  Saul has come such a long way, but he still has lots to learn – as we all do!