Tradition, knowledge, charity and inclusion are among the values young people pick up during the process of Hebrew school and mitzvah projects. However, not everyone has always had an equal opportunity to absorb these lessons, according to Cantor Marcelo Gindlin of the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue (MJCS).

Past generations with special needs did not have access to the same opportunities as their peers to learn about and experience what it means to be Jewish. And those without special needs did not have many opportunities to learn about key values in a meaningful, hands-on way, Gindlin said.

This led him in 2010 to found Hand in Hand (mjcs.org/hand-in-hand1), an inclusion-based program that integrates youth of all abilities. It was launched by MJCS and is operated by Gindlin, with special education teacher and parent Lisa Szilagyi, registered nurse Janet Hirsch-Ettenger and a crew of staff and volunteers. Rabbi Judith HaLevy of MJCS is involved in the b’nai mitzvah of children going through the program.

An integral part of Hand in Hand’s b’nai mitzvah program is “twinning,” or assigning a teen with disabilities to a peer without disabilities to work together. The peer buddies are kids who have already become bar or bat mitzvah or are about to. Gindlin said this structure allows participants to better internalize the fundamental values of Judaism.

“Jewish communities by nature should be inclusive, regardless of abilities, teaching them that they all have something in common,” Gindlin said. “In our program, kids learn how Judaism plays a role in nurturing friendships that will last a lifetime and how to appreciate the differences in those they make friends with. As past generations of kids prepping for bar or bat mitzvahs were not always taught directly to embrace and accept what was different, it made our other main goal to show these kids they could coexist in the same community.” 

Dylan Apple is a prime example of how a child and his family can overcome adversity through involvement in Hand in Hand. Although he was diagnosed soon after his birth in 1995 with cerebral palsy and epilepsy, his family hoped to rear him in the cultural and religious traditions of his Jewish ancestry. Hand in Hand provided a tolerant environment for him to participate in services and ceremonies, and the b’nai mitzvah program helped him prepare over the past five years for his forthcoming bar mitzvah, according to his mother, Heidi Hutchinson.

Szilagyi remembers the way her own daughter, who has a genetic disease that causes tumors to grow on vital organs, benefitted from the program.

“Given the severity of my daughter Emily’s disability, we dreamed of her having a bat mitzvah,” Szilagyi said. “With Cantor Marcelo’s and Rabbi Judith’s support, we were able to give Emily that experience. It was a music-filled and joyous ceremony, and Emily knew it was her day. 

“Now that I am working on the other side, I regularly hear from so many parents of young Jewish boys and girls with special needs who wish their son or daughter could have this experience, too, and I tell them that it is possible with the right support and planning, and some creative thinking.”  

Gindlin said he’s seen the sessions between volunteers and the kids intensify the development of new skills, such as learning core Jewish prayers, blessings and Hebrew related to b’nai mitzvah tasks; sustained attention; a better outlook on life; and a greater sense of belonging.

Berger Shapiro called the program “the sweetest little Thursday for my mentally disabled sister, Ryann.”

Ryann’s “twin,” Eden Ettenger, 17, said the experience has been mutually beneficial.

“Being a peer buddy has made me realize that regardless of any challenge or handicap one may have, creating strong relationships and having as much fun as possible is what is truly important in life,” Ettenger said.

The program is funded by the Windsong Trust, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the City of Malibu, The Malibu Special Education Foundation and private donors. 

According to Gindlin, parents of both the volunteers and participants with special needs have reported increased self-confidence as their children have transitioned through the program.

And this is just the beginning.

“Since Hand in Hand launched, we have seen a strong and creative program take flight,” he said. “We are focused on expanding the program to serve more children and families who are in need, as well as developing a secondary program with a social focus tailored specifically for children and young adults who have less severe special needs, but their own unique challenges.”