Even the imminent onslaught of Hurricane Irene couldn’t dim Josh Moreines’s excitement this past Saturday, Aug. 27. Though the storm prevented some out-of-town guests from attending, the 13-year-old from Cranford had an eagerly supportive audience of family and friends to hear him recite his bar mitzva portion at Temple Beth O’r/Beth Torah in Clark.
“Josh is definitely not shy. He’s a real ham,” his mother, Susan, told NJ Jewish News.
It was a major triumph for the friendly extrovert. He is autistic, and reads at about a fifth-grade level. According to Susan, he had learned no Hebrew at all in the various programs she had tried, until two years ago when he got together with special education educator Debbie Linder.
With her help, and working with his mother and Cantor Steven Stern, the leader of Beth O’r/Beth Torah, Josh nailed the challenge.
Aided by that team, Josh put together a speech that captured his outlook. According to the text shared with NJJN, he told his audience: “One of the great men in the Torah was Joshua. He led the Jewish people into the land of Israel after Moses died. He was strong and courageous and wise. I am proud to have the same name and hope that I too will be strong.”
The Clark congregation no longer has its own religious school, but Stern took Josh under his wing, making special CDs for him and having him participate in services. He was a soloist in the choir and helped lead Shabbat services.
“It was a magnificent day for Josh, his family, and the entire community,” Stern said. “He leyned Torah, chanted from the haftara, led part of the Torah service, and delivered a d’var Torah. Several folks came up to tell me that there was hardly a dry eye in the room, and my own observations confirmed that.”
‘Moved and inspired’
Susan was full of praise for the patience Stern and Linder showed her son. Linder, she said, “was wonderful. She knew just how to make sure it wasn’t too overwhelming for Josh.”
Linder said that as always, her approach was to assume her student could succeed and to seek to instill that assurance in him. She used a multi-sensory approach with Josh and made sure he understood the Shabbat service.
“The day was great,” Linder told NJJN afterward. “Josh was confident and focused for the three-hour Shabbat morning service. His fun and loving personality came through throughout the service. He enjoyed himself, and everyone in the congregation was really amazed at his accomplishments.”
Linder, the recipient of a number of awards for her teaching, has a master’s in special education from Kean University, where she is an adjunct professor in the subject, as well as teacher certification in Jewish education from the Union for Reform Judaism.
For a number of years, she was involved with the Ma’ayan special education program at Temple Emanu-El, the Reform congregation in Westfield. With the help of a grant from the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, there are plans to extend that program to take in students with disabilities from other towns. Josh briefly attended sessions there, but most of his preparation took place with Linder privately, at the Clark temple with the cantor, and at home with his mom, who decided to learn Hebrew with him.
Susan said it wasn’t all smooth sailing. “We laughed a lot and we fought plenty along the way,” she said. “He got very frustrated at times. He’d say, ‘That’s it. I quit.’ I’d put on one of the cantor’s CDs or read something, and he’d calm down and come back.”
Josh is a student at the Children’s Center of Monmouth County, entering eighth grade. His parents faced the kind of educational challenges with Josh that might have deterred others. But Susan said she and her husband, Theo, were determined to make it work. “This is an important tradition, and it was something we really wanted Josh to have,” she said.
The cantor said, “This bar mitzva shows that when a community comes together with a common purpose, everything is possible. With an extraordinary teacher like Debbie Linder, the dedicated involvement of parents, and the commitment and support of a caring spiritual community, we can make a huge difference in the life of a young Jewish man like Josh.
“To see his joy and achievement moved and inspired each and every one of us.”