Humberto Martinez – TimesUnion
Andrew Gelles wants to celebrate becoming a man just like any other 13-year-old Jew: with a few mazel tovs.
Andrew, who is autistic, is celebrating his bar mitzvah today. The Jewish rite of passage gives him the rights — and responsibilities — of being an adult. He’s been working for three months with the help of friends, family and Chabad of Delmar to prepare for the ceremony.
When asked what he thought about the bar mitzvah, Andrew hesitated, then mentioned the story of Dumbo, an elephant who has oversized ears and is ridiculed by his peers. In the classic Disney movie, the lonesome circus animal flaps his abnormal ears and learns what they let him do.
“At the end he became famous,” Andrew said. “At first no one thought he could do it, no one thought he could fly.”
He’s a deep thinker, said Diane Gelles of her son. He plays the piano and is functions pretty well in most respects but would not fit into normal society without help, she said. People with autism usually have problems interacting and communicating with others.
The Gelles family lives in Hudson. They are not observant Jews, Diane Gelles said, but they still wanted Andrew to go through the ceremony. She said practicing for it has improved his mood and interactions with others, and he’s also matured and shown more interest in the religion.
“For Andrew in particular there’s something very good about ritual and celebrating this passage of life,” his mother said.
The boy was brought to Chabad House of Delmar through Friendship Circle, an organization that helps families who have disabled children. Friendship Circle brings older teens like Chabad member Tzemach Simon, 15, to visit with the children each week.
Tzemach will be helping Andrew out today by reciting the some of the more difficult parts of the service.
He said he’s worked with another child who was unable to speak, but developed social skills during their time together. So, he said, for someone like Andrew, who speaks and interacts with people, going through the same life events as other kids is important. Tzemach’s own bar mitzvah two years ago meant a lot to him.
“You become a man and enter a whole other level,” Tzemach said. “You can do more things and be part of that society.”
On Wednesday at the Chabad House, Rabbi Nachman Simon was walking Andrew through each step in the process to make sure he was comfortable with the ceremony. Andrew will be reading some blessings, take part in the Torah processions and give a prepared speech.
Simon said it will be his first time to lead a bar mitzvah for an autistic child, but he expects to do others in the future.
“Every child,” he said, “deserves a bar mitzvah.”