While many were sleeping in on the first day of 2018, enjoying their day off from work, a group of excited friends and family members gathered in Northbrook for a first of their own — the first time Gabriel would be called up to the Torah. As a bar mitzvah boy, Gabriel had practiced the prayers and blessings like so many before him; doing his best to perfect the Hebrew pronunciation, and commit the ancient text to memory. Unlike other boys, however, whose greatest struggle might be remaining on task, Gabriel has autism, and his bar mitzvah celebration represents not only tradition, but triumph.
Gabriel’s bar mitzvah dreams became reality thanks in large part to The Friendship Circle, an organization created by Chabad, that pairs kids with disabilities with typically developing teenage volunteers in order to provide friendship and promote inclusion. Gabriel’s mother, Miriam Balavender, says she had known about Chabad for quite a while — they had been helpful when her family immigrated from Russia many years ago — so when a friend recommended Friendship Circle, she was immediately interested. “I wanted a chance for Gabriel to make a friend and have somebody to play with. He does much better one-on-one as opposed to group settings, so I thought the Friends@Home program would be a good fit.” Sure enough Gabriel bonded with his first Friends@Home buddy, Noah, and they continued having weekly playdates until the boy graduated high school.
Gabriel then got a new buddy, Aaron, who was studying for his bar mitzvah. As Gabriel’s own bar mitzvah approached, Miriam found herself wondering where to turn. After her first ventures proved unfruitful, she approached The Friendship Circle, whose Program Director, Bassie Moscowitz, got back to her with one word that made all the difference – “Yes!” Gabriel began preparing with Rabbi Zelik Moscowitz, The Friendship Circle’s Executive Director. Rabbi Moscowitz and Gabriel formed a close personal bond, so much so that Gabriel expressed a desire to continue learning with him. “He knows how to engage with Gabriel in a gentle and caring way,” says Miriam. When Gabriel completed his last bar mitzvah prep session, he was concerned. “That doesn’t mean I don’t get to see the rabbi anymore, does it?” Rabbi Moscowitz assured him that he is happy to continue learning with him, and growing together. And speaking of together, Aaron continues to visit Gabriel, and was amongst the bar mitzvah guests.
Miriam accompanied her son on the keyboard during the vocal segments of the bar mitzvah. Sitting next to him on stage, she says she was amazed and incredibly proud. “He did so much better than I even expected. I knew he had worked hard, but sometimes during his study sessions he would get distracted. On the day, he was so focused.” For parents of typically developing children, reciting the bar mitzvah blessings is a milestone they can take for granted, but for Miriam, it was anything but. “Gabriel didn’t talk until he was almost five, and we didn’t know if he ever would. Sometimes the small steps are a huge deal for a child with special needs.” Many of life’s stages look different for special needs families, but Gabriel’s bar mitzvah looked like everyone else’s.