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Michael standing with the Torah scrolls in the ark, draped in a tallit and holding a prayer book.
Michael standing proudly with the Torah scrolls.

Imperative for inclusion

Michael Newman became a bar mitzvah on December 12, 1987. Today he sits in the seat his father used to sit in at Congregation Beth Sholom in Rochester, New York, carrying on the legacy of their proud, shared Jewish identity.

Michael has autism. His parents, Lynda and her husband, David (of blessed memory), never hesitated to plan a bar mitzvah for their son. Lynda and David were wholeheartedly dedicated to providing Michael with equal access to Jewish ritual and Jewish community life.

Rabbi Shaya Kilimnick (of blessed memory) was instrumental in preparing and celebrating Michael’s bar mitzvah. Michael, Lynda, and David rode bicycles around the neighborhood all summer practicing singing and reciting the prayers. Michael was one of the first students to participate in a Jewish Special Education program in Rochester developed and taught by longtime family friend Elliot Fix. In addition to his administration position at Monroe Developmental Disabilities Service Office, Elliot was the coordinator, educator, and inclusion specialist for the Jewish Federation’s programs for individuals with disabilities for many years.

The bar mitzvah was attended by 200 guests, including family from as far away as Nova Scotia and California. Michael led the congregation in several prayers during a Havdalah service. He was very much at ease on the bimah (sanctuary stage). All of the traditions abounded at the celebration that followed—from the brisket and kishke meal to the hora circle dance.

Lynda has advocated for equal opportunity for children with disabilities for over forty years. She has lobbied at the New York State Congress and has collaborated with Jewish Family Services. She has sought out and participated in a pilot program for inclusion in gym and music classes in public schools. The Jewish special education program that helped Michael comfortably prepare for his bar mitzvah has become a model for Jewish inclusion and community connection.

Forty years later, more programs and resources are available. However, Lynda acknowledges that we still have a lot of work to do to promote and sustain a more inclusive Jewish community.

A photo album is displayed on the coffee table next to Lynda and David’s wedding album. Every time Michael comes over, he goes to the photo album and says: “Do you remember my bar mitzvah? It was the best, Mom.”

Finding out that you have a special needs child is not the end of the world. It will teach you a new world.”
—Lynda Newman

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