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The Bar/Bat Mitzvah Club

In the spring of 2011, Beth Tzedec Congregation soft launched a one of a kind pilot project, The Bar/Bat Mitzvah Club, targeted at Jewish children who have difficulty with social situations (i.e. diagnosed non-verbal learning disabilities, social anxiety and Asperger’s Syndrome, etc.) and who are approaching their Bar/Bat Mitzvah year. We want to hard launch the project as a full scale program for the entire Jewish community beginning in the spring of 2012.

The Bar/Bat Mitzvah Club combines the best practices of a social skills group for students with high functioning special needs with the content and process of Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation curriculum in the context of how these children learn (differently), form friendships (or have difficulty forming friendships), and find value and comfort in a Jewish setting. We see this model as a replicable one for excellence in inclusion and outreach for the entire Jewish community and beyond. In order to meet the needs of the larger community, we would benefit from formal curricular development, program development in light of comparative research in other religions’ integration of this population, enhanced budget requirements for programmatic add-ins such as outings, and a comprehensive recruitment strategy to attract more participants.

The 2011 pilot project, which will continue into the fall, enrolled four boys, coming from homes of varying degrees of Jewish commitment and attending different types of schools. All of their families struggle with integrating their children into mainstream Jewish life – whether camp, school, synagogue, etc. While the program is sponsored by a Conservative synagogue and co-facilitated by one of its rabbis, it does not have a specific denominational agenda and is open to the whole community. The pilot project ran for seven 90 minute sessions, in addition to an orientation and intake interviews. Through games, activities, dinner and discussion, the participants, who often don’t participate in activities offered from organized Jewish life and feel anxiety toward celebrating a Bar-Mitzvah, were able to discuss and process what it means to be Jewish. Topics addressed included being part of a group, expectations of a community, responsibility, mitzvah, our relationship with G-d, creating a Bar Mitzvah ceremony and celebration that works for them, and identification with Israel.

The parents of the children met concurrently with a group facilitator from the team. They discussed the challenges of raising children with these difficulties and established peer support. The parents were able to create a clearer vision of how to proceed in directing their children toward the Bar Mitzvah celebration and future participation in Jewish life that met the needs of both their child and themselves.

The Bar/Bat Mitzvah Club was conceived in partnership between interested synagogue parental leaders and synagogue clergy. It was designed by a team of educators, clergy, and committed congregants together with a team of skilled, highly trained experts in various fields. The team included:

1. Adam Cutler, MA – Rabbi, Beth Tzedec Congregation
2. Jonathan Leef, M.A.- PhD candidate (5th year), School and Clinical Child Psychology Program, Department of Human Development and Applied Psychology, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto; Research Coordinator, Autism Research Unit, Hospital for Sick Children
3. Barbara Muskat, PhD, RSW - Academic and Clinical Specialist, Department of Social Work, The Hospital for Sick Children; Assistant Professor, Status only, Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto; and Child and Adolescent Therapist, The Redpath Centre
4. Connie Putterman and David Golden – Parents, Board Member for Jewish and Autism Spectrum Disorder related organizations and others including: Jerusalem Foundation of Canada, Canadian Friends of Hebrew U, Autism Care Ontario, Autism Speaks Canada, Danny Grossman Dance Company (Toronto)
5. Lili Senman, MA - Research Coordinator, Autism Research Unit, Hospital for Sick Children
6. Jill Shuster, MA – PhD Candidate, York University, Clinical-Developmental Psychology, (degree expected 2012) and Psychology resident, London Clinical Psychology Consortium, Child and Adolescent Track
7. Abbie Solish, M.A. - PhD Candidate, York University and Psychology Intern, Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital
8. Jennifer Turack, MA – Director of Family Education, Beth Tzedec Congregation
9. Jonathan Weiss, PhD, CPsych - Assistant Professor and Clinical Psychologist, Department of Psychology, York University

The participants’ program was facilitated by Rabbi Adam Cutler, Abbie Solish and Jill Shuster. Jonathan Leef facilitated the Parent Group.

With the full launch, we hope to partner with local schools, camps, and youth movements and are open to developing a long term relationship with Jewish Family and Child.

Need: 

There is a need in the Jewish community to address the lack of quality, rigorous, intellectually challenging and meaningful social experiences in group settings for young people with high functioning Asperger’s Syndrome, or have other social and communication disorders. The pilot was created as a way to address a number of issues for these children (and their parents) both socially and spiritually as they approach their Bar/Bat Mitzvah, as well as to serve a need within the community to address the integration, acceptance and value of a Jewish community social experience for these kids. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah Club provides a forum, elsewhere lacking in Toronto, to help them feel positive about being Jewish and grow into becoming more committed members of the Jewish community. The club is a safe and comfortable environment for discussing spirituality and their anxieties about the Bar/Bat Mitzvah experience. While many synagogues, including Beth Tzedec run successful Bar/Bat Mitzvah Programs for typical kids, for a variety of reasons their programs generally fail to integrate those on the perimeter. Given the right tools, we all stand to gain from the diversity and richness of their ways of contributing to Jewish communal life.

Additionally, the parents of children with special needs currently lack a specifically Jewish support system for their children. There are many challenges they face in participating in organized Jewish life. Through The Bar/Bat Mitzvah Club Parent Group, these parents can receive support and friendship.

There is a growing rate of awareness, diagnosis and prevalence of Asperger’s Syndrome and other disorders such as anxiety disorders, non-verbal and gifted learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders and others over the past twenty years. Jewish youth groups and especially Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparatory programs to date have been unable to change with the times.

Conservatively, it is estimated that as many as 2 in every 100 children could benefit from a specialized Bar/Bat Mitzvah program. Based on the 2001 demographic study of Jewish Toronto (http://www.feduja.org/jewishtoronto/census/2001_Census_Jewish_Demographi...), approximately 2500 Jewish children in the Toronto area reach Bar/Bat Mitzvah age per year. A minimum of 50 youth, although likely many more, would benefit from this type of program, which is open for two years prior to Bar/Bat Mitzvah, thereby expanding the potential enrolment to at least 100 per year.

Goals, Objectives & Measurement: 

The Bar/Bat Mitzvah Club is a forum through which the participants, using different lenses, process what it means to become Bar Mitzvah in light of their own personal challenges. It is designed to prepare the participants for a meaningful Bar/Bat Mitzvah experience, to connect the participants with the organized Jewish community and fellow Jews with similar challenges, and to enable these young people to think deeply about the meaning of Judaism in their lives as they begin to emerge as young adults. Their parents shared a desire for the children to have a meaningful Bar/Bat Mitzvah experience and for their children to develop a Jewish peer group, something that can be challenging for this population.

Our objective is for the participants and their families to be able to envision what a meaningful and successful Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebration looks like for them. We hope that the participants will form friendships and will begin a process of entering the world of Jewish adulthood with confidence and knowledge of their roles and responsibilities. The program is meant to be an entrée to greater Jewish involvement. Elements of the program, such as social skills building, team building, and involving behavioural, psychology and social skills group professionals combined with Jewish educators will contribute to the overall success. Too many Bar/Bat Mitzvah programs signal the end of Jewish involvement. This program is designed to increase participation.

All of Beth Tzedec’s major youth programs include an evaluation component, as will The Bar/Bat Mitzvah Club. The impact will be measured by parent and participant surveys and long term tracking of Jewish commitments among program participants and their parents. It will also be measured through ongoing discussions among our clergy, youth director and the participants.

Opportunity for Involvement: 

One of the main challenges is marketing and recruitment, public relations, and outreach to the Jewish community, especially given the ongoing reluctance of some parents to self-identify. A comprehensive marketing and recruitment strategy is needed. In addition, technological expertise to enhance the program is needed including social media tools. We see the Fund members as having access to various skills, communities and outreach which could enhance our growth strategies. We are fortunate that in September 2011, the radio program Tapestry on CBC Radio One will feature The Bar/Bat Mitzvah Club in a story about one of the participants. However this is just a start. We believe that better public relations will lead to more positive coverage in the media and an inspiration to join in. Finally, we seek guidance from the SixPoints funders on how to strategically grow the program while retaining the small community feel that is needed to foster meaningful interaction.

Time Frame: 

August 2011 Address staffing issues, Strike committee to plan second phase of pilot
Sept – Nov 2011 Continue program with current (2011) cohort
Dec 2011 Begin recruiting for 2012 cohort
March – June 2012 Run 2012 program
Sept – Nov 2012 Run 2012 program
Sept 2012 Begin writing formal curriculum
Dec 2012 Begin recruiting for 2013 cohort
March 2013 Complete Draft Curriculum
March – June 2013 Run 2013 program
June 2013 Publish Curriculum
Sept – Nov 2013 Run 2013 program

Sponsor/Staff: 

The Bar/Bat Mitzvah Club program will continue to be facilitated by a team as described above. The professional staff of Beth Tzedec Congregation, which will continue to support the program, will provide administrative assistance.

Organizational Structure and Expertise: 

Synagogues are at the forefront of innovation and engagement in Jewish communal life. Jews in Toronto affiliate with synagogues more than any other Jewish institution and synagogues have the human and physical resources for a wide variety of programming. At Beth Tzedec, as we complete our strategic plan and with the hiring of young, gifted and creative clergy and staff, we are committed to measured risk-taking to bring greater numbers of Jews into active Jewish life.

Beth Tzedec Congregation is a 2600 family Conservative Synagogue with a long history of excellence in a variety of areas including Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparatory programming. The synagogue facility provides ample room for appropriately sized and positioned meeting locations for the participants and the Parent Group. The synagogue also has a gym, which was utilized most weeks during the pilot program sessions. Professionally, the synagogue is led by the Senior Rabbi and the Executive Director. The fully functioning Board of Directors is driven by an engaged and talented Executive Committee and is supported in its work by 24 committees and a large number of volunteers. We offer programs for all age groups in addition to regular prayer services and life-cycle support.

Criteria that Enhance Competitiveness: 

The Bar/Bat Mitzvah Club, to our knowledge, is the only Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation program anywhere aimed at children who have difficulty with social situations. Our aim is to provide resources to Jewish communities around the world to replicate our success. To grow, a onetime financial investment is needed to develop curricular and promotional materials. These materials, together with the good publicity that comes with success, will attract more participants and revenue sources and will create a replicable model for other communities. Given the high staff to participant ratio required for the program, The Bar/Bat Mitzvah Club does require ongoing funding beyond the fee charged to the participants. While we have secured some funding from outside of the synagogue, we are hopeful that SixPoints JVPF could help secure ongoing operating funding for The Bar/Bat Mitzvah Club from private individuals or family funds that are interested in this area or from public monies (including government funding).