Growing A Jewish Neshama

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02 Nov 2010

This past weekend, Evan, my 17 year old son (diagnosed with high-functioning autism), attended the NCSY Central East Shabbaton in Detroit. From all accounts, this was a GREAT Shabbaton. I know he had an awesome time; on the way back he texted me about the wonderful D’var Torah he had delivered the day before. When we finally saw him after he got off the bus, he had on a brand new NCSY kippah and was tenderly explaining who Gilad Shalit is.

I LOVE that my son is involved with NCSY! Ten years ago I couldn’t have imagined this. You see, it was ten years ago that we first decided to embrace a Jewish lifestyle, to create a kosher home, and to raise a child who identified himself as a Jew.

Back then we started slowly. I remember our baby steps towards shabbat: having NO idea and no real role model to follow, we taught ourselves through books, movies and interactions with other Jews. In this way, we learned how to bring Shabbat into our home. Some nights all we could handle was lighting candles. Some nights we were able to enjoy a full dinner together with hamotzi, wine and singing.

No matter what we did, it all felt really strange at first, but we knew it was a process. We thoughtfully tried to look at it through a broader lens, to see it in the perspective of a lifetime and not just a failed Friday night or a disappointing holiday.

The biggest challenge was not so much implementing Shabbat or other Jewish holidays. The biggest challenge was taking Christmas away from an eight year old who had always eagerly anticipated the season. In my family, Christmas was an American holiday; there was NOTHING religious about it. We had what my parents (children of the late 40s and 50s), had thought an American Christmas should be: a big tree, shiny ornaments, stockings, presents and pizza on Christmas Eve. When Evan was born, we kept up with this practice.

But as a serious Jewish family, it didn’t seem right to continue. In fact, once we became committed, it just wasn’t all that important. It no longer fit into our home or our lifestyle. This was especially hard for Evan – as a child with autism, routine is so important and to suddenly have that comfort of sameness removed was traumatic.

I realized that creating new traditions (new moments of sameness), would enable us to create a Jewish home and would grow Evan’s Jewish neshama. So I “strategically” celebrated holidays. Chanukah, in our case, was “larged-up”. I knew that if we stopped the “largeness” of Christmas and then celebrated a small, glitz-less Chanukah, that wouldn’t be very enticing for a little boy. So Chanukah became a touchstone for our winters. We also had Tu B’Shvat Sedarim and grew our own parsley for Pesach. We dressed up and attended the Purim carnival at our shul and bought Evan his own grogger. On Pesach, we would get rid of all the chametz and then search for any we’d left behind with a candle, feather and spoon. For Shavuot, we bought flowers and ate ice cream. On Rosh Hashanah, we cut up apples, bought honey bears, and then after Yom Kippur, we built and decorated our sukkah. Every holiday, every season had its symbols and every year we did the same things over and over.

We watched “Fiddler on the Roof” and listened to Craig Taubman in the car. We sang our favorite Shabbat songs on the way home from shul every Friday night. We made sure to always attend High Holy Day services and our lives began to revolve around the rhythm and cycle of the Jewish year.

We did it so well that the old holidays and celebrations slowly faded away. I knew we had “made” it when I told Evan Rosh Hashanah was coming and asked if he knew what that meant. His answer was “Yay! Apples and honey!

Our son attended religious school every Sunday and Hebrew school every week. He learned to read Hebrew and studied an entire year for his bar mitzvah. He led the service, had an aliyah, read each portion, recited the haftarah and survived the kiddush luncheon.

Shortly before his bar mitzvah, he started attending Yachad-National Jewish Council for Disabilities. When Yachad folded in Pittsburgh, he matriculated into NCSY. For the past two years, he has been going to Shabbaton programs independently with the aid of his NCSY “family” (as he calls them), but certainly just like every other teen who attends.

When he came back this time, he told me again how much he LOVES being Jewish, how he loves to lain tefillin (his ”antenna” to Hashem), how he loves to give a D’var Torah, which makes him so proud.

I feel as if we planted the seed of our son’s Jewish soul. We watered it, fed it and cultivated it. We knew it was like a strong tree; it wouldn’t be fully grown in a day or even a year but we knew that with time, love, the right environment and a lot of care, it WOULD flourish. And it has.

I am going to pick my son up now from his Hebrew class. On Sundays he still go to religious school although now he goes to one for older teens. On Mondays, he usually participates in an NCSY activity. It’s beautiful to see, it’s awesome and amazing to behold.

With Hashem’s help we have raised a wonderful Jewish boy who is slowly growing into an outstanding Jewish young man. He is not only an asset to his family but also to his entire Jewish community.

Elianah-Sharon is an Orthodox Jewish geek who loves to read, write, knit, Facebook, Tweet and text like a fiend.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.