ANDOVER - The 12-year-old boy sat in the synagogue, looked out at the congregation, and waved. On a day when Jewish tradition marks the transition from boy to man, Matthew Emmi smiled often and moved his hands to the music of the Hebrew songs. During prayers, he alternately slouched and sat erect.
And when it was time for him to say a prayer before the Torah, he touched the screen of an iPad.
Matthew is severely autistic and cannot read, write, or speak sentences. His family, friends, and educators never know exactly what he is thinking, but they know Matthew likes going to synagogue. He has been a regular at the Sunday service at Andover’s Temple Emanuel, where he hums, claps and smiles when Cantor Idan Irelander plays traditional Hebrew prayers on his guitar.
Several months ago, Suzanne and Michael Emmi decided their son’s autism would not prevent him from having a bar mitzvah.
“Because of the issues in his life, he’s not going to have a wedding or a high school or college graduation,’’ his mother said. “We wanted him to have that opportunity to have a special moment and shine.’’
After some discussion, one of Matthew’s teachers came up with an idea. Jamie Hoover, who is also the executive director of the May Center for Child Development School, met with Mathew, his family, and the temple clergy. During the meeting, she handed Mathew an iPad and after little prompting, got him to touch an icon on the screen. The iPad responded by reciting the name of his younger sister, Mia, and Matthew was delighted.
“It gave him a voice,’’ said Hoover.
The structure of the bar mitzvah was set: Matthew could essentially lead the service by touching iPad icons. School staff recorded Matthew reciting “mama’’ and “dada’’ and the names of other relatives who would be called up to the Torah. Irelander recorded blessings and Torah readings that a boy being bar mitzvahed would ordinarily recite, and e-mailed them to Hoover - who matched the prayers to icons and photographs.
“It’s quite amazing,’’ said Rabbi Robert Goldstein, of Temple Emanuel, who has known Matthew for several years. “We’re blending the most cutting-edge technology with tradition; with reading the ancient text of Torah. It’s facilitating spirituality.’’
Early yesterday morning, Matthew and his family arrived at the synagogue. After posing for photographs, he began to race around the mostly empty building - something he does often around the house, in addition to his regular routine of bouncing balls, riding a scooter, and listening to
Shortly before the service, he sat at a table in between his parents, and opposite the ark, which holds the Torahs. His mother held the iPad and his father placed his hands on a laminated blue cardboard that had 30 large icons representing the parts of the service that Matthew would announce by pressing the iPad.
Shortly after Irelander began strumming the guitar with an opening blessing, Suzanne held the portable tablet in front of her son, who confidently touched the screen with his left index finger.
“Pappa,’’ came forth from the sound system. It was Matthew’s prerecorded voice, and soon his grandfather, Harvey Glass of Peabody, was standing before him with a prayer shawl, or tallis.
“This is for you. It was given to me by my grandfather,’’ said Glass, before placing it on Matthew’s shoulders.
A few minutes later Matthew pressed on an icon that resembled an ear, and the cantor’s recitation of one of Judaism’s holiest prayers - the “Sh’ma’’ - reverberated.
After he had touched the IPad many more times - alternating between index and pinky fingers - calling his parents and other relatives to the Torah, it was time for his name to be recited. Soon, Irelander’s pre-recorded voice was playing again - filling in for Matthew - as the Torah reading prayers were sung.
Matthew fidgeted, waved again to friends, and sat pensively during the chanting. Once he pushed his father’s yarmulke from his head. Mike Emmi calmly reached for the skullcap and gently placed it back on his head.
Soon Matthew’s parents were giving him their blessing.
“Matthew, you are a remarkable young man,’’ they said, turning to their son. “Continue shining the special light of your love on the world and making it a better place. That is your gift to the world, and a mighty special gift it is. We love you.’’
After the family had walked through the synagogue with the rabbi and cantor and Torah, the service was over.
Matthew seemed relieved. He began to race throughout the room and seemed to find comfort in running up a long handicapped-access ramp. After most of the people had left, he ran in between the seats several times before pausing at a banister in front of the ark.
He looked back at the few remaining people in the temple, closed his eyes and sighed.
Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at WriteRosenberg.