A Ceremony Beyond Words: Double Bar Mitzvah for Special Boys

By Menachem Posner —

Parker Lynch celebrates his bar mitzvah at Chabad of Poway with Rabbi Mendy Rubenfeld, left and Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, center.
Parker Lynch celebrates his bar mitzvah at Chabad of Poway with Rabbi Mendy Rubenfeld, left and Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, center.

The room was silent during the speech at a recent bar mitzvah in the city of Poway, Calif., in San Diego County. Not even the bar mitzvah boy spoke. In fact, he couldn’t.

Dozens of friends and well-wishers gathered to celebrate the religious milestone for two young men, both of whom are nonverbal. One of them, 24-year-old Andrew Lindhardt, delivered remarks he had prepared via Lightwriter, a handheld device that allows him to communicate with a keypad.

Andrew, a student at Palomar Community College who also volunteers at Head Start, has cerebral palsy, as well as an unknown syndrome that has severely limited many of his abilities. The other celebrant, Parker Lynch, is a teen with cerebral palsy and autism.

Both are part of the Friendship Circle Diego, an organization where both typical and challenged children, teenagers and adults experience the joys of friendship and learn to appreciate their unique gifts. Regular participants in the Friendship Circle events, the boys developed a special bond.

As time went on, their families drew close as well.

Rochelle Lynch, Parker’s mom, said that she nursed a secret wish that her son would one day celebrate his bar mitzvah. “I knew that walking up the bimahplatform and chanting in Hebrew are a big part of it, and there was no way that my son would be able to do that, so I really did not think of it as an option. Then Mushky Coleman, one of the Friendship Circle interns, approached me and suggested that we have a joint bar mitzvah celebration for Parker and Andrew since they have this special friendship. Mushky really made it happen. She spoke to everyone and got them all on board.”

‘Everyone Got Involved’

According to Elisheva Green, executive director of the Friendship Circle of San Diego, “everyone in the Friendship Circle got involved. A group of girls in ourbat mitzvah club volunteered to make sports-themed centerpieces. Some of the moms did the shopping, and the boys and their families started preparing.”

Andrew Lindhardt carried the Torah through the synagogue for the congregants to touch or kiss.
Andrew Lindhardt carried the Torahthrough the synagogue for the congregants to touch or kiss.

Since Andrew is able to communicate through his Lightwriter, he prepared a speech for himself and for Parker. They and their mothers started meeting regularly with Rabbi Mendy Rubenfeld, youth director at Chabadof Poway, to study the theme of the week’s Torah portion and other aspects of Judaism.

During the course of the preparations, Rubenfeld realized that neither of the boys had Jewish names, as neither had a circumcision performed in the traditional Jewish way. Andrew underwent a bris and was given the Hebrew name Avraham Refael. His mother, Tara Lindhardt, planned to take the Jewish name Atara Esther.

The date of the bar mitzvah was Sunday, June 9, on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the Jewish month, a day when the Torah is taken from the ark and read.

Almost all of the nearly 100 guests gathered at Chabad of Poway were family members and friends the two boys had gotten to know through the Friendship Circle—volunteers, as well as other people with disabilities.

Both boys opened the ark. Parker held the Torah scroll with Andrew’s help, and then Andrew carried it through the synagogue for the congregants to touch or kiss.

After the scroll was brought to the bimah, the honors were given to other members of the Friendship Circle who had the verbal ability to say the required blessings.

Regular participants in the Friendship Circle events, Andrew and Parker developed a special bond.

Then the young men were danced around the sanctuary in a mass of loved ones—some walking and others in wheelchairs. Jeffrey Freedman, whose grandson has special needs, said “I don’t think there was a dry eye in our shul. I have never, and don’t think I ever will, experience such a moment.” He added that he now looks forward to celebrating his grandson’s bar mitzvah with the Friendship Circle when the time comes.

“We were so engrossed in the celebration,” Tara later recalled, “that we totally forgot to give me my Jewish name, so we ended up doing it a few weeks later during Shabbat services.”

‘Different Levels of Understanding’

Sitting between Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, director of Chabad of Poway, and Parker, Andrew delivered his 1,500 word “talk” on behalf of both boys.

Other than the fact that the speech was not delivered orally, many elements were typical—it started with a few jokes and ended with a long list of “thank you’s”—but other elements went beyond the norm.

Working off the fact that the laws of the Torah are often beyond understanding, Andrew said, “Parker and I think this highlights that for everyone, there is much to be open to in relationships that is not logical. There are aspects of life and relationships missed if logic is the sole focus. For our bar mitzvah, we wish to point out that even if we do not cognitively or rationally understand—or if we have special needs or if we don’t—there is much to be open to and to appreciate. There are different ways of understanding and different things to be understood. There are different levels of understanding. Parker and I believe there are beautiful things missed if we are not open to this.”

Continued Andrew: “Parker and I understand a loving spirit; we understand hope, we understand that when I, Andrew, say Parker is ‘my boy,’ and I touch his face and Parker hugs me, we know that we love each other. Parker and I just know what we cannot see and what we may not be able to totally comprehend, but we feel and know anyway. It is real. Parker and I understand each other. This is a relationship. Parker and I know plenty of others with special needs (often conventionally considered unable to communicate ) who exemplify many wonderful insights, and they always show us in such wonderful ways—a wave, a hug, an expression, a kiss, sometimes a behavior that indicates an understanding far, far, above what we would ever expect and more … ”

Andrew’s mother, Tara, said that “during the speech, Andrew would occasionally touch Parker’s shoulder and help him stay calm. I was really proud to see Andrew acting like an adult taking care of Parker.”

Even with the bar mitzvah behind them, both mothers plan to continue their weekly study sessions.

“Feeling the acceptance and comfort of Chabad, the last few months have been life-changing,” said Rochelle. “We have been learning so much with Rabbi Mendy as we prepared for the bar mitzvah, and we really want to keep up our momentum.

“While we are not what you would call religious, we have been learning to incorporate Judaism into our lives, and we want to keep growing. There were so many things that I had not understood about Judaism, and the rabbi’s openness has really been incredible.”

Tara echoed those sentiments: “We came looking for a place where Andrew would have some social interactions and ended up with so much more. For now, learning about—and incorporating—Judaism in our lives is our priority. Andrew led us here, and what has happened is nothing short of a miracle.”

 

mh- New York Jewish Parenting Guide.com