A bar mitzvah 50 years in the making

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

On a recent Shabbat morning, the sanctuary at Central Reform Congregation is bathed in sunlight and alive with music and dance. Independence Day was the day before, but the festivities aren’t in honor of the July Fourth weekend. Instead, as the ruckus dies down, the words of Scott Goldman ring out clearly from the front of the room as he tells attendees some of his favorite events and blessings from throughout the calendar.

“Every year on Simchat Torah, the members of CRC roll out the whole Torah scroll from the bimah to the very back wall that was measured very exactly,” said Goldman, carefully recounting how he feels about the autumn holiday. “We hold the holy scriptures in our hands, and the rabbi comes and tells us we are in the right place while the very small children run underneath and wave the flags.”

For Goldman, who has autism, the congregation has certainly proved to be the right place to explore his Judaism. Saturday’s service marked not only his 50th birthday weekend but his bar mitzvah ceremony as well. Rabbi Susan Talve talked about the miracle in Goldman’s Torah portion, which described the story of Balak and his donkey. 

“There are things built into creation that we think we are controlling, but we are really not,” Talve told the congregation. “I think this day was meant to be. It is so right, so beautiful, it was meant to be.”

Yet as with any bar mitzvah, it came with many hours of hard work. 

Don Williamson, a caregiver who helps Goldman at the residential facility where he lives, said: “After Scott had been attending CRC regularly for a bit more than a year, I met with Susan Talve to talk with her about strategies for increasing his connection and involvement with the CRC community. At that time, she asked if Scott had ever had a bar mitzvah. I told her that he had not.”

Williamson, who is not Jewish, said that individuals like Goldman can be remarkably talented but also can feel cut off from others because people don’t always understand the most effective ways to communicate with someone with autism or special needs. That goes for religious communities as well. Williamson said Jews with developmental disabilities can be deprived of the practices and observances of their faith, particularly if they don’t have family in the immediate area to help them connect.

“When I asked Scott why he hadn’t had a bar mitzvah when he was younger, his response was, ‘Because I made noises,’ ” Williamson said. “What that suggested was that at that time, his behaviors were not seen as compatible with the norms and expectations that went along with studying and participating in that important of a process and ceremony.”

But in reality, Goldman actually had some advantages in studying. For one thing, he has a talent for languages and already knew Hebrew. With some work, he was able to read it without the vowels.

“A lot of the basic constituent components of Jewish culture and practice were firmly in place from a very young age, which is one of the reasons we were so motivated to renew and enrich his connection to his Jewish faith and culture,” Williamson said.

Interviewed after the ceremony in which Goldman lead the congregation in prayer, Talve said that sometimes religious communities have to be prompted to be welcoming and can make the mistake of being dismissive toward those who are disabled or different.

“We’re afraid to look at them so they become invisible,” she said. “We’re afraid to include them, and so we don’t learn from them because we are uncomfortable. But the truth is that it is where our greatest blessing comes from.”

That was certainly the case with Goldman, whom Williamson describes as a caring, talented person with a wide breadth of knowledge about cultures and geography as well as a passion for Internet research and classical music, interests that he pursues with enthusiasm and joy.

“I’ve spent thousands of hours with him, and I’ve never heard him say a sharp word to anyone,” Williamson said. “He is absolutely the kindest, most gentle human being I’ve ever known.” 

Mel Goldman, a CRC board member, is a cousin of Scott Goldman’s although he didn’t know that when they met. He happened to see Scott’s name on a sign-in sheet for an event a few months ago and discovered that his father’s brother was Scott’s grandfather.

“So, actually, I’m his second cousin, but who’s counting at this time,” laughed Mel, who called Scott a marvelous individual with whom he’s developed a strong bond of friendship. 

Mel Goldman said his cousin is deeply dedicated to CRC.

“In the last 100 Shabbats, he has never missed a service,” Mel Goldman said. “I can’t say that about myself.”

Scott Goldman began training for Saturday’s service in December. Williamson helped with the process, but it was congregant Larry Mass who did the actual training. Mass had also previously trained his own daughter, who has Down syndrome.

“[Inclusiveness] is important because if we are all created in God’s image, then we should all be able to develop what abilities we have as best we can and be part of a community,” Mass said. “This was Scott taking leadership for this Shabbat, being part of our community and teaching us.”

Talve said that, ultimately, the congregation benefits when all of its members are given a chance to add their  abilities to the mix.

“What can we do to make sure that the village is big enough and inclusive enough?” she asked. “Not for their sake, but for our sake, because it makes us better? As great as it was for Scott, it was a thousand times more of a gift for us.”