Working with a Challenging Student: Bar Mitzvah Special Education

B-Mitzvah (R)evolution

In this narrative, Heftsi Assaf, an attention deficit disorder specialist with a great love and skill in bar/t mitzvah tutoring, shares her inner thoughts and ways of working with a challenging student.

When I first met Natan’s mother, she told me that he was a very special kid. I didn't think it was out of the ordinary, most parents think that their kids are special. Especially when I meet with them the first time (and after) they can become very protective when the student struggles between doing his or her homework and preparing for their Bar/t Mitzvah [b-mitzvah from here-on]. In addition, I deal with parents projecting their own "experience" growing up and having to go to Sunday or religious school onto what it will be like today. Furthermore, they also worry the experience will be like what they had during their own B’nei Mitzvah years. So, parents, at times, seem to already have the curriculum for their child even before they met me.

Natan, however, was different. He was diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder), Oppositional Defiant Disorder and Intermittent Explosive Disorder. He was on medication, but since youth at this age grow up rapidly, his medication regime needed to be adjusted accordingly, usually after one or more episodes, when his symptoms have worsened.

The year of his b-mitzvah prep, Natan started a new school, in a different city, that offers special attention and education. His parents needed to hire a driver to take him there and back. The commute to the new school could take over an hour each way in rush hour. This can be difficult for an ordinary person to handle, all-the-more-so, was it difficult for Natan.

I also learned that Natan was adopted when he was very young. I later found out that his biological parents were a Mexican American family, which explained his dark complexion. If that wasn’t enough, Natan's parents got divorced some years ago. He lived most of the time with his mother and step father and spent some weekends and holidays with his father.

Needless to say, Natan didn’t have many friends. His difficult behavior and lately attending a different 'special' school in another city, left him quiet and lonely. Since seventh grade is essentially the Bar Mitzvah year, all classmates, whether Jewish or not, are part of the b-mitzvah process in that year. Somewhat like another kind of a support group for kids, at his prior school, they came to class and shared their feelings (mostly frustration) around preparation for the b-mitzvah service. They comforted and supported each other throughout the process. Students also invited and were invited by their classmates to the service and especially “the party after.” Now Natan would miss all that.

At times it was really hard to be around him. If Natan wasn’t a student of mine, and I knew that a person like him existed, I would have thought that someone took all of the most difficult worse and challenging case scenarios out of a mental health case study book and presented them all to me in one case.

When I saw Natan for the first time, he appeared tall for his age and chubby. He wore a black shirt with a skeleton painted on it and black pants with chain hanging out the back. His nails were painted black. One shoe was a huge inflatable shoe that he got at a Bar Mitzvah party the night before. He had ear phones on his head which were connected to Discman in his hands. His appearance, needless to say, did look VERY different from all the students I taught so far.

Preparing Natan for his Bar Mitzvah was challenging. It would have been easier if he would have been coming to me for therapy – I thought, ‘then, time would be more flexible.’ Bar Mitzvah, on the contrary, has a deadline and a specific material to cover during that time. In addition, there is the tzedakah project that all the students that I teach have to do during that time.

Natan was a challenge. I needed to “pull” all the techniques I knew and developed over the years, as well as think about new ones. I was up to the challenge.

Like many other kids, Natan loved hot chocolate. I usually start the first part of my b’nei mitzvah classes in the kitchen. Kitchens seem to have always functioned as gathering places for family and friends, so, the students loved the part where we chat in the kitchen while I prepare their hot chocolate or tea. I find this to be a good ‘warm- up' for the session and usually ask about their week and then specifically about their assignments. Sometimes, I use the time to review the material from the prior class. This informal contact with the students is an important part of building a good rapport with them. Many times they talk about their week, as well as their struggle in becoming teenagers. I have learned a lot about this age group in the past few years as I witness the evolution in their 'life styles'.

Finding a way to teach Natan was like playing the ‘secret door’ game. I needed to find the right keys to the right door. I had the first one when I learned that Natan loved hot chocolate and the kitchen. When he later warmed up to me, we talked a lot about his main hobbies, the music he listens to, and computer games. I learned a lot about hard rock music and the “gothic” dress code that year. At the beginning, I was somewhat intimidated to ask Natan about music I knew nothing about. He, on the contrary, was excited to introduce me to his world. Ah! I had I found the second key that would help me to better communicate with him.

You see, talking to Natan about anything, including about his Bar Mitzvah, was close to impossible at the beginning. He hardly talked for many lessons. Communicating with him was difficult, most of the time he was close to being mute, with not much facial expressions. His vocabulary summed up to: “I don’t know”, “maybe” and he shrugged his shoulders a lot. He basically had very little to no motivation to learn anything about Judaism, Torah blessings etc. I often found myself teaching in a mono-dialogue. I asked and then after a short pause, answered the questions, sang the blessings with no reply, ask to draw a picture but ending up doing it myself. He often tested limits when he made a long zipping sound while drinking his hot chocolate. He was also missing the sparkle in his eyes when I spoke with him about ‘the party.’

So, hot chocolate, and music were my first keys. We moved from the kitchen to the study where Natan had the opportunity to play one of his favorite songs and tell me a little about the band, while I got ready with the material I was going to teach him that class. He couldn’t tolerate more than a few items on the table. Everything else was too much stimulation for him and he lost his concentration easily. I needed to change activity often.

Natan also used to have many “bathroom” breaks at the beginning which lessened as he became more comfortable with me. Since he loved music, he often fantasized a different rock band playing at his Bar Mitzvah either in the service or at the party after (at least he started to imagine the service and a party. That by itself was a progress.)

Jews are blessed with many holidays which proved handy in this case. Many holidays are celebrated at home and I teach at home. The 'oral Torah' is also tasty in my house. As I make latkes for Hanukkah, hamantaschen for Purim as well as take mishloach manot to my students and their families- dry fruit and cheese cakes. I bring something special for them from Israel after each visit. Natan loved food, and developed a special taste for the Jewish holiday foods.

As our lessons started to progress, a few months passed and I didn’t know how we were going to meet the deadline. I was ‘stuck’ with the curriculum. The shift came when I learned that what seemed to me and to others important about Judaism and Bar Mitzvah preparation did not necessarily fit the capacity of what Natan was able and ready to take on at this time and age. I needed to figure out other layers of what it meant for him to become a Bar Mitzvah.

My next ‘key’ was Natan’s love for animals. Unfortunately, he had just lost his dog earlier. It is hard for many of us when we lose our pets, even-more-so Nathan, who was very much attached to his dog. His Bar Mitzvah project became volunteering at the animal shelter, this I helped to facilitate. He also added a picture of himself together with his dog to the special siddur that his mom and I edited for him.

Every class was different. I needed to assess in what mood and state of mind Natan came and accordingly to adjust the lesson. From being negative and oppositional he eventually turned to listening to me, then joined me, then did it himself. All that happened together with other our rapport building process of shared hot-chocolate, sitting outside, listening to music, painting nails with black nail-polish, playing with marbles… etc.

Natan’s level of understanding the blessings and capacity for insight was extremely limited. We set aside all the “studying” and pilpulim (tiny points of debate) and deep insightful discussions possible with some students and instead worked on the positive experience of Jewish culture. So he may not even remember what the words elohim or adonai are. He may not remember anything that we talked that had to do with his Bar Mitzvah and or his Torah portion. I am sure that he will remember for ever the time he came here and the relationships we had, and the hot chocolate. He may not remember the Torah portion, but he may remember the story he told about his grandfather that was related to his Torah portion.

When I almost gave up one day during my regular check-in with Natan, I asked if he would like to join me in chanting the Torah blessings once again. I had tried to have him repeat with me each time to no avail. And one great day he did. As we say in psychology – he needed to be ready to move on to the next step, with good rapport and trust. After all singing (chanting) is some kind of exposure and level of vulnerability for a person. His mother heard and said that he also had a nice voice, he agreed.

In this article I am trying to communicate that things didn’t go in an order that could be planned. There were many layers to his progress which happened side-by-side. Trying to convey this on a single piece of paper is like looking at a 3D image and painting it in one dimension, I hope you understand.

The more I listened to what he brought to the lesson, the more he progressed. Our spiritual journey included listening to hard rock, metallic music, discuss parts of the lyric, learning about a new computer game and even joining him in applying his black nail polish. I discovered that Natan had difficulty being indoors, so we set chairs outside and studied in my garden. It was a night and day difference! Natan was withdrawn and quiet indoors and the minute we were out in the garden he opened up like a flower in the sun.

The more I was able to step up to his world, the more he became available and opened to study. The last few months of his b-mitzvah preparation, I had a jar and a marble bag. Each time he recited a prayer or participated in a discussion (his drash), I added another marble (or two) to the jar. This helped. He learned the hatsi kaddish and the Torah service. The quality of his voice expressed his level of confidence. I taped his aliyot and he helped me to write them in “Hebrish “(transliteration) for him. He then was more cooperative to agree to write his drash. I usually have philosophical discussions with my students. In Natan’s case, I had to write specific questions about his parsha, which he answered with the help of his mother. He seemed excited to see his speech develop and more so, to complete it. Thanks to his good musical ear, he was able to learn the aliyot relatively quickly. Not all the lessons were as easy as it might seem, but overall I learned to find even the smallest accomplishment in every lesson and comment on it positively.

During our rehearsals when Natan was on the bimah, he was unable to stay focused more then few minutes at a time. He took a lot of bathroom breaks, which made the rehearsal painfully long. I doubted if he would be able to pull it all together. Usually the b’nei mitzvah youth in our region, lead most of the service. So, even though this service was tapered to Natan’s ability, he was the one who was expected to lead the service.

The day of the bar mitzvah arrived. Natan wore a black shirt, black pants, black shoes and you guest right, his nails were also painted black. (We actually made a bet on the latter’s likelihood.)

I never in my dreams imagined a year before that this kid will stand so comfortably, with so much confidence, on the bimah. He LOVED the attention and like in a spell, he sailed through the service that took over two hours with no bathroom breaks and with full attention.

I sometimes think about the work I do - alternative b’nei mitzvah with youth who otherwise would never have the chance to have this experience. I am often criticized by others who think that there is only one way to have a bar or bat mitzvah, they are missing the objective. The process during the time of studying is way more important than the 2-3 hours of the ceremony.

When I think about Natan, I think that if I was able to touch his soul with a little bit of Jewish tradition, if he was able to do one tzedakah project – dayeynu. Each one of the students I prepare is a constant reminder of the pure nefesh (soul) inside of every one of us.

Heftsi Assaf Psy.D., MFT RDT holds BA in Theater Arts and Hebrew literature from Hunter College, New York, MA in clinical Psychology with a concentration in drama therapy and Psy.D in clinical psychology. Working as a Jewish educator and Hebrew studies supervisor since 1990, she lives in the San Francisco Bay area presenting and facilitating many workshops for educators, students and professionals, locally and nationwide.