Buddy system for b’nai mitzvah solves issues for mom, son

I grew up in a fairly secular home. My parents gave me the option to attend Hebrew school and have a bat mitzvah. My friends were shocked that I had a choice and advised me to opt out, so I did. It wasn’t until I became an adult that my spirituality kicked in.

My faith was truly tested when my eldest son was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. He has sensory issues along with a high level of anxiety. His meltdowns tore me to pieces. When he cried, I cried. While he raged, I tried to stay as calm as possible … then I cried.

I cried for him and his struggles, I cried for the people he hurt or offended, I cried for my family. I cried because on the surface, he is the epitome of a kind, sweet, typical kid and you can’t see the volcanic infernos bubbling inside him. Friends, family and strangers would constantly tell me there was nothing wrong with him — he’s fine. Yeah, he’s fine until he’s not fine. I still cry.

He is about to turn 13 — a pivotal moment in the life of Jewish children as they start to get ready for their bar or bat mitzvah. My son has attended several b’nai mitzvah over the past couple of years, and we have discussed them at length. Talking about things with him ahead of time helps him cope with his anxiety. He has a difficult time with the crowds of party guests and the loud music of the DJ. Typically, his choice is to wait outside the party area until our family is ready to leave.

On one particular occasion, he was invited to a classmate’s party. I was to drop him off and pick him up later. For several reasons he had a complete meltdown and insisted on leaving. We thanked the hosts and apologized for our abrupt departure. Fortunately the hostess was more than empathetic, having a child with similar issues.

It was while we were driving home together that we had a most special moment. After he calmed down, I told him he was going to have to deal with a similar situation when he has his own bar mitzvah. He promptly told me he wasn’t going to have one.

I gave him the option of having a small ceremony and luncheon in New York with just the immediate family (our family is all on the East Coast, while we live in southern California) or here at our synagogue. He was still reluctant, although he did like the idea of just the grandparents and immediate family attending. His fear of getting up in front of a lot of people would send him into a downward spiral.

I thought for a moment and realized that we have been on this journey together as a team since he was just a baby. I am his mother, his advocate and his coach. We are teammates. We should do this together. So I proposed to him that I would do this with him. He loved the idea. Of course I don’t want to take away from his special day. It is still about him. But the idea of having someone there with him puts his mind at ease — somewhat anyway.

As for me, I have always felt that I missed out on something big not having a bat mitzvah as a girl — I never became a part of the world that my friends all know, a special club. I wish I had learned Hebrew as a child. I would have loved to have understood the whats and the whys of the traditions in synagogue. I’m glad I’m getting my chance now.

Our b’nai mitzvah is scheduled for March. We have set the wheels in motion. I have been taking Hebrew lessons. We are both preparing to learn our Torah portion, and we practice together. I have to say he is definitely doing a better job than I am.

We have embarked on this journey together. It has brought us closer, and even though I am doing this for him, I can’t help but feel the blessings that he has given me. He has taught me so much; he has no idea.

Stacey Steinhart is married and a full-time mother of two boys. She lives in Orange County.