Five years ago, I was in a store when an eight-year-old boy from our community saw me, came over, and said one word: “Rabbi.” The encounter not seeming all that unusual, I didn’t think anything of it until later that evening when the boy’s mother texted me to say that I had witnessed a miracle. I honestly didn’t know what she was referring to until she explained. She had heard about her son coming over to me and saying “rabbi” and she wanted me to appreciate that in fact, while that simple gesture would be unremarkable and ordinary for almost every boy his age, the fact that her son recognized me and called me rabbi was nothing short of miraculous.
That boy was Joe Greenbaum and he is autistic. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that often includes social impairment, challenges with communication, and repetitive patterns of behavior. On top of that, Joe also has a form of apraxia, an uncommon speech disorder in which the brain struggles to develop plans for speech and as a result has difficulty making accurate movements when speaking.
The combination of autism and a form of apraxia meant that for Joe, learning to speak and communicate would be nearly impossible. And yet, through incredible tenacity on his part, and with the boundless love, encouragement, and support of his family, at eight years old, Joe successfully learned how to speak. When he said the word “Rabbi” that day, what would have been for almost anyone else utterly unmemorable and insignificant, was in fact for Joe and his family an absolute miracle.
Interacting with Joe, it is clear that he understands that there is a world around him that he is connected to, but yet not fully part of. He desperately wants full access and full interaction, but his primitive receptive language skills simply hold him back and deny him that full access.
While at times it can be hard to fully know what Joe is thinking or feeling, there are times when it is clear what he loves and cherishes. At the top of that list are his beloved family members, who have shown incredible devotion, dedication, patience, love, and care to him and his siblings, including two others with autism, throughout his life. In a close second place is Joe’s love for Judaism. Since his early childhood he has been drawn to the sound of the Shofar, enjoys listening to Jewish music (Shlock Rock in particular), loves coming to Shul and kissing the Torah, and most recently puts on his Tefillin with more enthusiasm and excitement than most Bar Mitzvah boys.
This coming Shabbos is Joe’s Bar Mitzvah. While other parents struggle to choose a venue for the party, select a caterer, narrow down the invite list, and finalize a menu, for the last few years, Joe’s parents were struggling with the question of if—and how—he would have a Bar Mitzvah altogether. It is hard enough for an autistic child with apraxia to learn one language, but to read and speak a second is practically unthinkable and unimaginable.
And yet, rather than be fatalistic or resigned to their son not being a candidate for a public Bar Mitzvah, Joe’s parents chose to imagine, to envision, to dream, and ultimately to make the impossible possible. With the help of Dr. Harold Landa as a Bar Mitzvah teacher, and Joe’s Aunt Nina, who worked tirelessly to help him learn Hebrew, they set a goal of Joe receiving an aliyah on the Shabbos of his Bar Mitzvah. Almost everyone around this devoted group told them it was impossible, unattainable, and an unrealistic and perhaps even unfair expectation to set, as receiving an aliyah involves the recitation of two berachos on the Torah. Nevertheless, with the support of Joe’s team, which includes his amazing grandparents, incredible therapists, as well as Rabbi Gershon Eisenberger and Rabbi Matan Wexler, Joe’s parents defiantly shut out the voices of negativity and of defeatism and tenaciously persisted towards the goal of Joe learning how to receive an aliyah and recite the berachos on the Torah.
The next piece of the puzzle was Joe’s cooperation. An autistic young man will typically not do something that he doesn’t want to do. Over the last few months, Joe not only cooperated in the pursuit of his parents’ goal, but he has far surpassed it. With God’s help, this young man, who did not learn to speak until he was eight years old, will not only receive an aliyah this coming Shabbos, but will lain the maftir aliya as well. Having had the opportunity to watch Joe practice, kiss the Torah, say the first beracha, recite the laining, and articulate the second beracha like any other Bar Mitzvah boy was to literally witness a miracle before our very eyes.
There is so much for us to learn from this extraordinary family and their outstanding son. Firstly, as the Chida famously taught, “Ein davar ha’omeid bifnei haratzon — nothing stands in the way of will.” Joe has worked relentlessly overcoming all odds to be able to achieve what almost all of us take absolutely for granted. He has taught us that if we dedicate ourselves to achieving a dream, we can make the impossible a reality.
Assuming he performs smoothly on Shabbos morning—and even if he doesn’t—this accomplishment for Joe far surpasses almost anything any of us have done far beyond the age of thirteen. The Chazon Ish and the Steipler Gaon stood up in honor of special children as they entered a room. While others saw children with special needs labeled by society as disabled or even handicapped, these Torah giants saw only special souls capable of extraordinary things whose lives brought out the best of those around them.
Joe’s team has taught us to never stop believing in every single child, no matter his or her limitations. They have modeled how to never stop dreaming or setting the bar high, even when others tell you it is impossible, unrealistic, and unachievable. They have taught us how to persevere, despite being physically and spiritually tired, how to keep going, even when at times you desperately want to give up. They regularly remind us how to be grateful for the things that almost all others take for granted.
And now, this coming Shabbos, there is one last piece of the puzzle necessary to complete the picture for Joe and his family: the role played by us, his community and Shul. Enabling Joe and anyone like him to experience his Bar Mitzvah is not only the responsibility of his family, but is a duty of our entire community. Facilitating a Bar Mitzvah for an autistic young man requires patience, flexibility, and cooperation. We adults can learn from Joe’s classmates who just completed 7th grade at Hillel Day School. They, too, are part of his loving team and regularly make accommodations to enable his participation.
While I have highlighted Joe’s story here, it should not be lost on us that Joe is not the only one in our community with special needs. Every special needs child and their families deserve our unwavering support, love, patience, inclusiveness, and, when necessary, accommodations. Raising special children requires superhuman strength and sacrifices that are beyond our imagination. Lessening their challenges, being supportive and encouraging, are not extra acts of chessed. It is our responsibility, duty, and obligation to fill in our piece of the puzzle.
If you don’t believe in miracles, I implore you to come to BRS this Shabbos and please God see one for yourself.