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PAGE 6B HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, JANUARY 31, 2014 It takes a village and a hard-working team By Rabbi Rachel Esserman The Reporter, Vestal, N Some claim that it takes a village to raise a child. According to Denise and Chuck Pascarelli, the bar mitzvah of their son, Jared, not only took a village, but a lot of hard work. The story of Jared's bar mitzvah really begins al- most 13 years ago. When Jared was 10 months old, he had his first epileptic seizure. Medical testing showed that, in addition to the epilepsy, he also had some developmental difficulties. Denise and Chuck quickly learned how important itwas to take one day at a time. That was also their initial approach to Jared's Jewish education. "[Jared] attended religious school, he learned about the holidays and we attended Shabbat services on Saturday mornings as a family," Denise wrote in the speech she gave during the bar mitzvah ceremony. "Saturday mornings at Temple Concord have been a gift to our family. I met the Saturday morning morns, whom I adore, and they became a dose of friendship for me every week. We all felt welcome." Then, about two years ago, Denise began to think about Jared's bar mitzah. She focused on two things: working with Temple Con- cord's religious school's principal, Orly Shoer, and finding resources to help her child with special needs. Shoer suggested that De- nise begin very simply. "In [Shoer's] very awesome Israeli accent she said, 'Can we teach him the Shema?' I felt reluctant," Denise said. "But on that day, Orly opened a door: I started singing the Shema to Jared just about everyday, in the morning when I woke him up, and at night before he went to sleep. Those times that I sang to him became precious to me." Denise noted that they practiced the single line regularly. Then one day, "many months later, on the way to religious school we were singing it in the car," she added. "Then [Jared] stopped me. 'I'll do it myself,' he said. The words of the Shema came from the back seat of the car- each sound, every word, sung just about perfectly. I could hardly contain myself. It was like crossing the finish line of a really long race. On that day, I realized that we could dream a little bigger." Denise and Chuck were not on their own when it came to teaching Jared. Rabbi Barbara Goldman- Wartell, the spiritual leader at Temple Concord, said a team of people at the syna- gogue helped. "We worked for two years to make this possible," she added. "People wanted to work with Jared because he is filled with joy. They wanted to be part of the celebration of his life." She noted the contribution of his religious school class as an example: The students helped Jared lead several prayers during the service and, earlier in the year, performed a play with him that was filmed by Shalom Shoer and shown during the ceremony. In addition to his time with Goldman-Wartell and Shoer, Jared was tutored by Lesley Thesier, who worked one-on-one with him on Saturday mornings; Julie Piaker, who helped him with his lessons on Sundays; and Josh Wallenstein, who taught him on Mondays. Wallenstein also took Jared to the movies and to play miniature golf; Brianna, Jared's younger sister, some- times joined them on their excursions. Denise worked with Jared the other days of the week. Unfortunately, no one in the Greater Binghamton region specializes in Jewish special needs students, so Denise also sought profes- sional help from outside the area. After Googling the words "special needs bar mitzvah," she found the website of Gateways, whose mission is to "ensure that Jewish children with a full range of learning styles, abilities and challenges succeed academically, so- cially and spiritually to their fullest potential." It offers educational programs and resources for parents, teachers and school admin- istrators. Although most of their students attend Jewish education classes in the Greater Boston region, the organization agreed to help Denise long distance. Nancy Mager, of Gate- ways, said in an e-mail inter- view, "While we do normally work with students locally, working long-'distance with Jared and Denise was not a problem. With the use of technology, Denise shared videos of Jared so we could get to know him a little and see what he was able to do. We exchanged e-mails or had phone calls and Skype calls to figure things out. This information, along with. Denise's understand- ing of her son, gave us enough information about his strengths and learning style that allowed us to help guide her. And while it is certainly more fun to work side-by-side with a student and really get to know him or her, Denise was a great partner in sharing of infor- mation about what would work for Jared." Rebecca Redner, of Gate- ways, stressed the impor- tance of understanding each students' abilities in order to learn their strengths and weaknesses. This helps Gateways develop an indi- vidualized teaching plan. For students like Jared, this is particularly important. For example, Gateways needs to understand if students can read English before deciding whether or not to teach them Hebrew. Creative educational meth- ods do help. "In recent years, we have started to illustrate prayers with Mayer-Johnson symbols," Redner said in an e-mail interview. "Each word or short phrase is given a symbol that illustrates its meaning. Students who are not able to read a translitera- tion of the prayers learn to associate the words of the prayer with the symbols, and learn how to 'read' the symbols. Using symbols is also a great method because it helps students (and often their parents, too) learn what the prayers mean. Learning the meaning of the prayers is something that is often overlooked, even with typically developing students! I think it helps students learn the prayers when they know that they're not simply repeating gibber- ish, but saying words that have meaning." Redner also noted the importance of introducing children to Jewish holidays and rituals long before thinking about their bar or bat mitzvahs. "Parents of children with special needs - parents of children with any needs for that mat- ter - can start at an early age by simply having Jew- ish objects in their homes, observing Jewish holidays at a basic level and making holiday foods," she added. "This helps children to feel like Judaism is something both familiar and comfort- able, which is particularly important for children with special needs who tend to have more anxiety about unfamiliar things. Starting with this early goal of just familiarity and comfort with Judaism and Jewish observance can make a big difference as children begin religious school and start to study for a bar or bat mitzvah. Additionally, students with disabilities who might not understand the abstract concept of Judaism might connect with the idea of Judaism in a more concrete way when they know that Judaism has something to do with the tangible acts of lighting a menorah, eating matzah or wearing a kippah. When children grow up in a home where Jewish objects are visible and holidays are observed, even at the most basic level, they are better prepared for a meaningful bar or bat mitzvah celebra- tion as they approach their teenage years." Denise created a prayer book for Jared using modi- fied Mayer-Johnson sym- bols in order to help him remember the words. To keep him engaged during the service, he performed tasks normally reserved for the rabbi, such as ask- ing people to come to the bima for their readings and honors. To make certain he knew whom to call, his note- book featured photographs of relatives and friends, in addition to containing sym- bols showing when people should stand up or sit down. A smaller Torah was used for the processional, which enabled Jared to carry the scroll around the sanctuary. Goldman-Wartell said Jared did more than anyone originally expected, includ- ing learning part of the Ami- dah and reading the first line of the Shema from the Torah scroll. Jared and Goldman- Wartell studied the biblical stories about Abraham and Moses, with Jared deciding that he wanted to focus on Abraham because of the pa- triarch's generous concern for others, including helping those who are ill. Instead of a traditional d'var Torah, the filmed version of the class play about Abraham was shown. In their speeches, both of Jared's parents noted how much they had learned from him. Chuck mentioned that Jared views the world with an excitement and enthusiasm that few can match. His son's "drive and tenacity" serves as an inspi- ration to keep trying even when things are difficult. He also noted that Jared:s "purity and innocence are remarkable. I truly think that when God was handing out skills and attributes, he gave Jared the purity and innocence that he would like to see in all humanity. If Jared were God for a day, there would be no more hurt, anger, war, oppres- sion, discrimination, hun- gry people or rainy days. He would make everything as pure as he sees it." What Chuck sees as per- haps the most important facet of Jared's personality, though, is the depth of his love: "And finally, there is love - I think each and every one of you has had a hug from Jared. In fact, earlier this spring, when we were at the Boston Museum of Arts, the security guard who directed us to the exit received a big hug from Jared. Even on those days where I lose my patience with Jared because he has driven me to the point of craziness.., he will hug me and tell me that it is OK, I still love you." Denise also spoke of the way Jared has inspired her: "There have been times in my life that I've wanted to give up, but you inspire me to keep going. You step up when life beats us down. You reassure us that ev- erything is going to be OK. Thank you for forgiving us when we get impatient and mad, thank you for cheering us all on in everything we do. You make us believe in ourselves because you be- lieve in us. And you should know that we believe in you and we are so proud of you. Thank you for showing us the very best in humanity. You live your life with your arms wide open, with your heart wide open. You teach us how to live and how to love. Most importantly, you make the world a better place. May you always know how much we love you. May you stay well and have hap- piness always." Goldman-Wartell added that Jared offered an im- portant life lesson in the short speech he gave after the Torah service, which she saw as a summary of their experience together. In it, he said, "I love my family. I love all my friends. I love all my teachers. And God is in my heart." By Ellen Paderson JNS.org Today, with families more spread out than they used to be, the idea of a destination function is more appealing than ever. Having guests travel to one location can be efficient, fun, and serve as a vacation at the same. When it comes to weddings, destination functions can ac- tually be less expensive for the couple getting married than paying for 150 guests at a fancy venue. Hosts can choose the friends and family members they want to spend the week with (no need to invite the other 125 "less close" people). Aweek in a more exotic place can be smaller and more in- timate, and people really get to know each other. There can also be cost sav- ings with a destination bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah. It can cost less to go away for a week than to pay for one large three-hour event. All sorts of options are available. An expert's guide to destination functions Among popular destinations for bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs are the historic synagogues with sand floors (used to muffle sounds when prayers were held secretly) in St. Thomas and Curacao, the Costa Rican rain forest, and the centuries-old synagogue in Barbados. Bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs on cruises are also a great oPtion--re- ally fun for multigenerational families. They can have the ceremony in the St. Thomas synagogue during the port call, or in the cruise chapel. I work with a cantor who prepares the child for the cer- emony and usually joins us at the resort or on the cruise ship. Families should choose the destination based on what is convenient for their fam- ily but, more importantly, on what is of interest to the special boy or girl. Honeymoons are, by their nature, vacation affairs. Trendy destinations that I recommend exploring include Tahiti, Fuji, and the Maldive Islands. Couples love the Costa Rican rain forest and its beautiful waterfalls for exploring and photographic memories. While we're used to the idea of booking a hall and caterer in our hometown, the idea of do- ing it in another city, state, or country can be intimidating. But with the Internet you can see, and sometimes even go on, "virtual tours" of venues. You can also maintain close contact with everyone you need to work with to make the day perfect. Of course, the services of a professional like me makes things smoother, easier, and gives you access to places and people that you may not otherwise find. As I like to tell my clients, "Let me do your worrying." Ellen Paderson owns Smiles and Miles Travel, www.smilesandmilestravel. com. She has arranged more than 5,000 trips, including at 300-year old synagogues in San Juan, St. Thomas and St. Martin, and can arrange Dirk van der Made The Santa glena Skywalk through the Costa Rican rainforest. ground transportation, tours, requests. See www.barmitz- lished by www.Jewish.Travel, photographers, flowers, kip- vahvacations.com, the new online Jewish travel pot, kosher food, and other This story was first pub- magazine.