Newsline Volume 32, Number 4

Matthew's Bar Mitzvah: A story of inclusion, spirituality, community, and an iPad.

This past March, the Boston Globe and Fox News Boston reported on the remarkable story of Matthew Emmi's bar mitzvah. Matthew is diagnosed with autism and has a very limited ability to communicate, but with the help of his family, teachers, synagogue leaders, and an iPad, he was able to communicate well enough to make the traditional Jewish transition from boyhood to manhood. Both the Globe and Fox News celebrated this story as a triumph of technology, which indeed it was. Yet we at the Federation were also heartened and inspired by the context and values that turned Matthew's iPad into a tool for inclusion.

Long before it was decided that he could participate in a bar mitzvah, Matthew had regularly attended, (not to mention thoroughly enjoyed) synagogue. This may seem like an unremarkable fact, but anyone who has experienced the dual challenge of raising a child with severe special needs while simultaneously becoming separated from his or her community of worship will appreciate how important it is. It requires a willing family, an accessible and understanding community, and the support of spiritual leaders. Such things can never be taken for granted, even in 2012. We are truly blessed by experiences such as these.

We were also struck by the fact that Matthew learned to use his iPad at school. It was not so long ago that communication difficulties such as Matthew's would have been nearly impossible to overcome. Today, there are committed professionals constantly seeking to push the envelope of what every child can learn and do, and to collaborate with family and community to help him do it. Matthew's teacher met with Matthew, his family, and temple leaders to overcome the challenges of including Matthew in his bar mitzvah. School staff recorded Matthew's voice and programmed his iPad to play those recordings when he touched specific icons on the screen.

When we looked at the photographs of Matthew smiling and laughing, the center of attention of his synagogue and community, we couldn't help but be impressed at the extent to which the day was about Matthew. While no one may ever know exactly what Matthew was thinking, his feelings of pride, satisfaction, and acceptance shone through. We at the Federation have been fighting for decades to ensure that the basic human needs, desires, and challenges of individuals with special needs are respected, even when those individuals are unable to clearly articulate them. Matthew's special needs in no way diminish the importance of that day for himself, his family, and his community. Indeed, they make it that much more important to everyone involved.

Finally, in the story of Matthew's bar mitzvah, we see clear and specific evidence of how he has contributed to and strengthened his community. Our foundational belief is that all children and adults with special needs have much to contribute. We believe that a community can only reach its full potential by including and caring for all of its members. Matthew's bar mitzvah required collaboration between educators, family, and spiritual leaders which would not have happened without him. It forced his teachers to reconsider anew the purposes of education. It required his temple leaders to reevaluate the essence of a tradition that has been repeated countless times, and creatively find ways to incorporate Matthew into it. It helped his parents to really understand what was important to Matthew, and helped them all share an experience that brought together family, temple, and community. Finally, the work of countless engineers, businesspeople, software developers, and educators, created Matthew's iPad and the apps he used. Through Matthew, that work became a tool to help a young boy become a man and a full-fledged member of his community. For bringing us together in all of these ways, we can only say, "Thank you Matthew, for enriching all of our lives and the world we live in."