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October 4, 2015 | 21st Tishrei 5776
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B'nei Mitzvah--Challenged Students


  1. Nov 2006 Digest 160

                If you are presented with a student who is not mentally challenged but is language challenged, do you allow an English transliteration of their Torah portion to be used for learning purposes? Do you allow these transliterations to be placed in the Torah on the day of the ceremony? Do you allow Hebrew-with-vowels sheets to be placed in the Torah?

                We are having an on-going philosophical question about allowing transliterations to be used when a student just can't "get it."(Some of the kids have terrible memories. Some of the kids can barely read English).

                If we said, "No, you can't do it from a transliteration and therefore you won't "read" from the Torah nor will we make it appear that you are reading from the Torah, would this diminish the sense of becoming a Bar or Bat and diminish the sense of accomplishment on the part of the student?

                Currently, we do allow sheets to be placed in the Torah for appearance purposes, but it has always troubled me (I inherited the practice when I got here) and our new senior rabbi.

                We have told parents that reading from the Torah is a great honor but the most important aspect of the ceremony is to understand what the portion is about and then teach a lesson learned. The next important goal is for the students to have a good prayer skill so that after their time as students they will feel confident when entering a synagogue and at least some of the prayers will be familiar.

                Reading Torah and haftarah are next on the list of objectives. Needless to say there are pressures from peers, parents and grandparents who are expecting the good-ole fashion ceremony: a Torah and haftarah chanted in Hebrew.

                We are considering stopping the use of transliterations. Whatever a child can do, they will do. If they can only chant prayers, that's what they'll do…


    950 families
  2. Nov 2006 Digest 160

                It is an interesting question about whether or not to use transliteration, aids, etc. My feeling is that the experience of the bar mitzvah overrides the specifics of training. In my experience, I will do anything to help the child. For some children, they are able to go immediately to a Torah text and bypass all the intermediate steps. Some are able to master the signs of cantillation, and can read or chant any text. For others they will learn and mimic the words and tunes from a CD or a cassette. Others need a shortened portion, English and even transliteration.

                When someone doesn't know how to walk, you offer a crutch. And if that doesn't work, a walker or a wheelchair. I don't mean to be flippant with such a comparison, but sometimes that is what it is like for those who teach bar/bat mitzvah students constantly throughout our entire career.

                I will do and use anything to help a child connect to his/her bar/bat mitzvah with the hope that they will feel good about themselves and about Judaism.

                That is the real issue.

  3. Nov 2006 Digest 160

                My nephew is severely autistic; yet he understood what a Bar Mitzvah is and wanted to proceed with his studies. For [him], it was a challenge just to be able to recite the Sh’ma and a couple other blessings. Yet he did them with all the kavanah you or I would have.

                …I think we need to encourage our students to do the best they can; using whatever tools they have at their disposal. We provide monster-sized charts of the Torah brachot for our older aliyot at the bimah (who still recite it poorly and then giggle about it). Why not provide the same "crutch" for our future congregants?

  4. Nov 2006 Digest 160

                At our temple we had one student who had a learning disability who was allowed to read from a sheet (I didn't check if it had transliteration or Hebrew with vowels). He did most of the service in English. My impression from talking to his tutor was he worked hard to do the most that he could.

                How many students without problems work hard to do the most that they can do? I think this has to be done on a case by case basis, decided by the temple's clergy, so that laziness is not counted as a learning disability.

                Reading or chanting from the Torah should receive a high priority, even if it is only a few lines from the Maftir. Leading the congregation (regardless of language) is also important as a sign of accepting the responsibilities of a Jewish adult. The sense of accomplishment after working hard teaches that lofty goals can be achieved. I also agree that understanding what you’re doing is very important…


    323 families
  5. Nov 2006 Digest 160

                There seem to be two issues at hand. First, children, or adults, who are educationally challenged and want to celebrate their Bar/Bat Mitzvah. We should make every compassionate attempt to help them master as much Hebrew as possible to make this a truly meaningful event. I am not sure if the CCAR Press or URJ Press has written any books/pamphlets/guides on this subject, but if not it would be called for.

                Secondly, for those who find learning a second language difficult, I would press them to learn a portion and as many prayers as possible, even if it is less than what might be normally accepted. To let them off the hook would encourage others to plead the same case. We have a problem in Reform Judaism with Hebrew literacy and just making it easy with transliterations is not an answer in my opinion. If someone can barely read English then there is a bigger problem at hand.

  6. Nov 2006 Digest 160

                I think it is important that we do everything feasible to help those children--and adults!--in our congregations with special needs to participate in services and life-cycle events. Chessed, tikkun olam, and tzedakah apply in our own communities too, not just in the greater community.

                That said, sometimes we have to say "no" to something, or "not in the usual way", and that's ok. We must not compromise our core values for the sake of a ceremony. I think honesty is one of those core values.

                Putting a sheet--Hebrew with nikkud or transliteration--in the scroll and then pretending to read out of the scroll is dishonest. In addition to the main ethical problem, it sends a message to the student that it's ok to "cheat" for a perceived greater good, which is not a message I think any of us want to send. I think it also puts the student in a bad position with his peer group; he'll be known as the one who had to fake his Torah reading. Will such a student continue to be involved in the community?

                Besides, this "cheat" isn't even necessary. We have an understanding of what a bar- or bat-mitzvah ceremony typically consists of, but none of that is carved in stone. If a student has a disability that prevents reading from the scroll--then don't read from the scroll. Instead, let's give more focus to prayers, which can be read from pointed text, transliteration, Braille, etc., and to the d'var Torah and other service components. We can honor the bar or bat mitzvah with an aliyah without adding Torah-reading. We can find ways to make a meaningful experience “within” the student's abilities.

                We have a student in our congregation with a severe disability who was not going to be able to participate in a typical bar-mitzvah service. Learning the Sh'ma and V'ahavta was a major accomplishment for this student, from what I understand. Our rabbi worked with the family to create a meaningful experience this summer without having the student do--or pretend to do--things that were just not possible. From what I've heard, the student was pleased with the way it came out and the parents were pleased with the individual attention their family received.

                We need to be sensitive to individual needs and creative in addressing them. We can create authentic, meaningful experiences while addressing individual needs. There is no one standard bar-mitzvah service.


    ~850 households
  7. Nov 2006 Digest 161

                I've had several students whose dyslexia prevented them from studying Hebrew, reading English being enough of a challenge already. I did not hesitate to provide them with transliterations of both prayers and a few verses of Torah, nor to have them place their transliteration papers with the scroll when they "read" from it.

                I don't see this as a question of honesty. For me, it's a question of dignity. These students had to work just as hard to present their few verses of transliterated Torah fluently, as did their peers who could read and chant from the scroll. They earned the right to be honored for their efforts equally with their classmates. (One of these students had a tutor who taught him to chant his eight verses (!--we had only expected three), and of course, chanting proved to be easier than reading.

                Contrary to one of the replies to this query, I have never heard any complaints from students or parents that the students using transliterations were picked on, embarrassed or humiliated in any way.


    125 units
  8. Nov 2006 Digest 161

                …my son, who celebrated his Bar Mitzvah this past May, stutters. While the Hebrew was actually easier for him to read aloud than the English, the easiest thing of all was for him to sing as much of the service as possible. As I am the soloist at our congregation, it was very moving for me to be able to musically share the bimah with him.

                We also have a child in our congregation who is autistic and doesn't speak. He uses a keyboard and types into it which is then mechanically voiced. He will be celebrating his Bar Mitzvah this spring. We all look forward to this very special simcha.


    430 member families
  9. Nov 2006 Digest 161

                What's the real meaning of bar mitzvah? As explained by my teacher…in the Jewish tradition, a young person at the age of thirteen becomes personally responsible for the fulfillment of the mitzvot and gains entitlement to be honored with a call to the Torah. The bar mitzvah is not the act of reading from the Torah or reciting the blessings--those are demonstrations to the community of chronological maturity achieved coupled with a display of knowledge acquired. That was why…adults who learned…necessary to be called to the Torah and to read its text were honored with the title of hovevei Torah, lovers of Torah, rather than with the title of adult b’nei mitzvah

                I have no problem at all with a congregation setting standards of learning and accomplishment for who among the eligible will be called to the Torah. Nor do I have a problem with a congregation relaxing those standards for someone whose intent is sincere but whose reading/learning skills have limitations.

                I do have a problem where a congregation relaxes its standards not because of the young person's learning constraints, but because of his soccer schedule (perhaps combined with the parents' checkbook).

                But the discussion on this list should recognize the difference between and among the mitzvah, the symbolic acceptance of the obligation by preparing for the ceremony, and the ceremony itself.

  10. Nov 2006 Digest 161

                I think we should re-evaluate the contemporary meaning of the bar/bat mitzvah. Not one in a hundred kids who has this ceremony believes he is "responsible" for the fulfillment of the mitzvot. We may want him to be responsible and believe he is responsible, but he does not.


    525 families
  11. Nov 2006 Digest 162

                …part of the issue might be the perception  that a rabbi and cantor are accomplices to a family whose understanding of  bar/bat mitzvah is as limited as their child's ability and/or willingness to  work. While we have to meet our congregants where they are, we are also obliged to make every effort to bring them to a higher level of learning or understanding. There are certain "crutches" that I would be willing to use, but transliteration in the Torah is not one of them. In our congregation, when the Torah reading is completed the Torah is held up. Sometimes, the rabbi adds, "so that we can see the text which ploni/plonit read." If we use

    transliteration, we are bearing false witness.

                There are students who truly cannot learn Hebrew because of severe learning disabilities, physical disabilities, or emotional and mental handicaps. It is more in the spirit of "becoming a bar/bat mitzvah" to  work with them at their level than to use the approach that each bar/bat mitzvah  must be relatively the same or it is not "authentic." All of us evaluate our students individually and, hopefully, know them and their situation well enough to make honest choices.

                That said, I admit that I am currently preparing a student whose glasses do not correct his vision sufficiently to allow him to read from any Torah we have. At a recent rehearsal, he tried  to read from the scroll, used a magnifying glass, took off his glasses and, in  the end, the rabbi and I decided that using a copy of the text produced without  vowels and laid in the Torah was the only way to have this young man read  Torah. This was, however, the very last resort. If he had not learned to read the Hebrew, the outcome would be different.

                What will make any change difficult is the long-standing precedent [a given congregation] has concerning transliteration. Managing the change will be the key to getting rid of this practice.

  12. Nov 2006 Digest 162

                I couldn't agree more that dignity and self-worth matter greatly as we prepare our young people to become Bar/t Mitzvah. Our Torah goal is for each child to feel a mastery of Hebrew, content and even symbolism.

                We have never used transliteration. We do have special ed tutors. We also have contracts written for those students who are not working hard enough. For the student whose learning challenges are unique--such as downs syndrome, or severe reading and/or memory issues (dyslexia usually not being one of these; often Hebrew is easier to master for some reason)--we select a special Torah portion, such as the Sh’ma, which allows for reading recognition to take over swiftly. We also might shorten the amount of material to learn.

                All of our students are evaluated by fifth grade's end to determine the need for extra support. Those who need begin their preparation sooner.

                Most of our students are doubled; we match students by gender, skill, personality, birth date and other factors (interfaith parents, which village they live in). We have doubled kids with learning issues. More often, we give our kids with special needs a single.

                Never had to use transliteration yet.


    485 families
  13. Nov 2006 Digest 162

                As a teacher (not clergy), I have prepared students to become b’nei mitzvah for over thirty-five years; the rabbi and/or cantor also work with the student during the last few weeks before the event. Most young people lead the service up to the silent prayer. During the Torah service, they chant the blessings and four to five verses of the weekly parashah from the Torah scroll, and then chant the haftarah blessings, chant a verse or two in Hebrew at the beginning and end of the reading, and read the entire section in English. We tailor the Torah reading to fit the child. Some students chant Torah for more than their own aliyah; some students only manage to chant one verse. We have even had one student who could only manage to do the blessings. Twenty years ago, I had one Special Ed. student who had never been to Hebrew class but decided that participating in the Bar Mitzvah service was important to him. He was (is) very musical with a phenomenal memory. He virtually memorized all the Hebrew he had to read or chant but we had talked about the meaning of what he was saying. He had the experience of seeing the Torah text as he was chanting. This experience meant so much to him that now, as a single adult, he attends Friday night services on a regular basis…


    310 families
  14. Nov 2006 Digest 162

                I don't mind the use of the book, but why lay it in the Torah? Why not use it in plain view next to the Torah? Most people who attend a bar mitzvah have some familiarity with the student. Be upfront and honest. This is his first act of accepting responsibility for his actions and accepting the laws and traditions of Judaism. Start on the right path.

  15. Nov 2006 Digest 162

                We have had several variations of learning issues at our synagogue.

                One family had three boys, one with Down Syndrome. This child quietly lead a few prayers that he knew, and stood next to his aunt who chanted Torah for him and stood next to his brothers as they chanted. He is fairly high functioning, but could in no way handle chanting on his own. He did what he could, and everyone was very proud of what he did accomplish. He was so proud of himself that day, and continues to attend services and do prayers as much as he can.

                We also had a fairly severely dyslexic child who, despite months of coaching and last minute intense help from congregants who have knowledge in this field, still had trouble with Mi Chamocha and a few other prayers on the Friday morning rehearsal for her bat mitzvah. We cut out a few things that she could not manage to retain. However, she managed to get through her Torah portion with a little help from the cantor coaching quietly beside her when she got stuck. It was not overly pretty, but she got through the service without too much trouble.

                We tend towards allowing the child to shine as much as they can to their ability. The biggest thing is to ensure the child learns something and is proud of themselves.

                As to adults with learning issues, we have had adult b'nei mitzvah classes with a wide variety of abilities as well. One man had visual issues, and he had a large magnifying page he used to see the Torah scroll and chant while the rabbi kept his place in the scroll. We have had several adults with dyslexia, and all have managed to chant at least three verses. Our cantor provides a CD of the Torah portion chanted (along with a reading of the verses so the words are correct too). Playing that over and over allows the student (of any age) to memorize the portion if need be. As an adult with dyslexia, I know that listening to the CD, with a copy of the portion without vowels--as well as a transliteration page was how I managed to chant my portion. It took several months, but I managed four verses and survived without fainting under the stress.

                To my knowledge, we do not allow any pages to be put into the Torah. If you can chant, you chant. If you cannot, we find another solution. Torah is still chanted, just not by you…

                …I think the real issue is making sure we are teaching something and helping people to feel more confident in the synagogue so they do not wander away from our faith. If we can truly state we have taught a student to the best of their abilities, exactly what is the issue if they cannot do every last bit of the service? The question I have for those who allow pages to be put into the Torah to make it appear the chanting is being done--what do you do if later, someone asks the student to chant--allow them to do that again? How much embarrassment will they (or their families) have trying to explain they cannot actually chant?


    600+ Families

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