This Saturday, Shabbat, our community will share a celebration that is both typical and unique. Like other bar mitzvah boys in Chabad of Shoreline, 13-year-old Shalev Berel will be called to the Torah. He will read verses from the manuscript scroll and thank God for the gift of our inheritance.
What is unique is the bar mitzvah boy himself.
Shalev is neurodiverse – he sees and interacts with the world differently than most of us. Sometimes he feels left out or labeled. He often struggles to be accepted as he is.
Although Shalev has different abilities, there’s no reason his bar mitzvah should be anything other than typical.
Unfortunately, children living with disabilities sometimes have their milestones overlooked or overlooked. But a bar mitzvah, for example, marks a boy’s passage into adulthood, with its responsibilities and privileges. Isn’t this transition as important for Shalev as it is for other kids his age?
Inclusion doesn’t just mean making our environment more accessible. It means recognizing that everyone deserves the same opportunities and celebrations.
Not long ago I came across a teaching by the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, from memory, the most influential rabbi in modern history. It resonated with me especially when I got to know Shalev.
The Rebbe, born in Ukraine in 1902, came to America from Nazi-occupied Europe in the 1940s. In 1950, he assumed leadership of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, sparking the worldwide revival of Judaism after the Holocaust . During the decades of his leadership, the widest range of people sought the Rebbe’s guidance, from statesmen to lay people.
The Rebbe often emphasized the unique potential of each individual, regardless of their perceived limitations, and encouraged them to go deep within themselves and positively change the world around them. Since the Rebbe’s passing in 1994, countless others have learned and been inspired by his teachings.
Once, in 1976, a large group of wounded Israel Defense Forces veterans came to New York on a special trip for “Israel’s disabled.” They visited the Rebbe, who warmly welcomed them. When addressing the group, he explained that he preferred the term “Israeli’s disabled” not be used. “Disabled,” he said, implied inferiority. But the men who sat before him were not inferior. God, in His wisdom, had singled out each of them with unique qualities and abilities with which to overcome challenges that most people could not understand.
“I therefore propose to change this term [the disabled]and call them the ‘distinguished’,” the Rebbe said.
The casual observer might have seen young people stripped of their limbs by the war. But the Rebbe saw pure and holy souls brought into this world for a reason, with a mission that no one else could fulfill.
It is a fundamental approach that we should all strive to emulate.
When I met Shalev, it was clear that his incredibly supportive family took the Rebbe’s approach to heart. As an advocate for inclusive education, her mother collaborated with the non-profit organization The Arc to create Lunch Brunch for Jewish Parents, a support group that champions a truly inclusive society for all children in our communities.
As Shalev’s bar mitzvah approached, it was clear his would be no less joyful or meaningful to him and his family. Our bar mitzvah lessons focused on Shalev’s unique gifts and talents. His memory is phenomenal and he quickly understood what he was going to read aloud to the congregation. He has proven that anyone can achieve their goals if they have the tools and support to do so.
Shalev won’t be defined by what he can’t do. He will be defined by the unique gifts he can give to the world.
And this weekend, Shalev will accomplish the first goal he set for himself as part of his entry into Jewish adulthood.
He will be called to Torah at Chabad of Shoreline in a very typical bar mitzvah – for a unique young man.