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For boy with Asperger's, bar mitzvah is extra special

GULFPORT

Sherry Blau paused for a moment, her hand resting on a stack of new prayer books, and beamed at the young man standing on the synagogue's bimah, the platform from which the Torah is read.

Joshua, 13, was chanting in Hebrew, a rehearsal for his bar mitzvah. Family members and friends from across the country were coming to Gulfport's Congregation Beth Sholom for the occasion.

"It's hard to describe," his mother said that weekday afternoon as she contemplated her son's religious coming of age. "It makes my heart swell."

Joshua's year-and-a-half-long preparation would be a triumph of concentration and commitment, including his chanting of the Haftarah, a reading selection from the prophets, and reciting a series of blessings over the Torah.

The seventh-grader at Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School in Largo has Asperger's syndrome, a disorder on the autism spectrum.

"It's the higher functioning end of the spectrum," said Kathleen Hinkle, who works as an exceptional student education teacher in the Asperger's unit at Joshua's school.

Children with the disorder typically have average to high intelligence and difficulty with social skills. They are overly dependent on routines and exhibit an all-consuming interest in specific subjects.

"Some Asperger's children do have what I call a passion," Hinkle said. "They get very, very interested in one thing and they will research it. For some of them, they'll keep the same passion for life, fixate on one thing. Some move on to others."

Joshua's interests are Zords, a category of Power Rangers, and Gao Power Animals and Gosei Machines from Japan, but as the days approached for his March 2 bar mitzvah, he spoke of excitement about the event.

"I was born Jewish and this is really important to me. Plus, I am not just doing it for me, I'm doing it for my family. I learned Hebrew faster than you can say 'Sonic the Hedgehog,' " he said, in a reference to a video game character.

Dr. Paul Cohen, a retired osteopathic physician and a leader at Congregation Beth Sholom, prepared Joshua for the bar mitzvah ceremony.

"In the early days, things were difficult, but we plodded along," Cohen said.

"I let him know that I was his teacher. Before the lesson, I would take something valuable. He did a lot of growing. I think what he has done is remarkable."

Jeffrey Blau, Joshua's father, recalled that his own bar mitzvah followed six years of Hebrew school. Blau, a lawyer, said he was proud of his son's poise in front of more than 100 people.

"He learned to read Hebrew and he did a stellar job," the Treasure Island resident said. "I feel very privileged that I have him as my son. He's bright. He's very capable."

Hinkle, his teacher, agreed. "I think it is an awesome accomplishment for him," she said. "What it says to me is, never limit your child. They will surprise you to no end. I think a lot of times we as a society say that a child has a disability and we lower our expectations of them. It's detrimental to them. They can reach so much."

Joshua's accomplishment was also Congregation Beth Sholom's, a small community at 1844 54th St. S that has struggled to attract families with young children.

"We fight for our existence," said Cohen, who has taken it upon himself to offer Hebrew classes and bar and bat mitzvah preparation to anyone who asks. He functions as the congregation's gabbai, assisting to make sure that services at the Gulfport synagogue, which relies on a part-time rabbi from Webster and a cantor from Sarasota, run smoothly.

A few days before Joshua's bar mitzvah, tables at the synagogue were draped with blue tablecloths overlaid with clear plastic imprinted with the Star of David. The celebratory kosher lunch was to be catered by Jo-El's Delicatessen of St. Petersburg.

As Joshua rehearsed, Sherry Blau and her sister, Leigh Ann Jarvis, completed the task of sticking commemorative labels inside the 100 new prayer books the Blaus had donated to the synagogue. "In honor of the Bar Mitzvah of Joshua Ephriam Blau," the labels read.

On the bimah, Cohen went to the ark and took out a Torah scroll. He wanted Joshua to practice what to do before the cantor read the Torah on the upcoming Sabbath.

Joshua took the fringes of the prayer shawl draped around his shoulders and touched them to the Torah portion that would be read. Then he kissed the garment as a sign of respect.

That day he also practiced the blessings and readings. First, though, he tapped the microphone.

"Testing, testing," he said.

"No pounding on the mike," Cohen said.

Chanting, Joshua glanced up only occasionally as a camera clicked and his mother and a synagogue member hammered a blue-bordered bar mitzvah banner to a wall.

"Yasher koach," Cohen said as the practice session ended. "Well done."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

For boy with Asperger's, bar mitzvah is extra special 03/23/13 [Last modified: Friday, March 22, 2013 4:23pm]
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