By Michelle Cohen
On Oct. 22, 2016, at Temple Covenant of Peace, Mika Kanofsky celebrated his bar mitzvah. Joined by a caring community of family, friends and synagogue members, and encouraged by Rabbi Melody Davis and Cantor Jill Pakman, Mika, who has autism, was able to celebrate his special day in his own way that was meaningful for him and insightful for the community.
At the beginning of the studying process, “Rabbi Melody said it’s your service, what do you want to do?” recalls Heather Arak, Mika’s mother. Every part of the service, including the portions he led on Friday night, Saturday morning and Havdalah, was done with him in mind, an experience that Arak says made her son feel comfortable. “He [says] she’s so nice, she makes me feel important, and that’s all anyone wants, to feel important and special and like you’re seen and like you’re someone, and they do that for him, which is really special.”
During the ceremony, for example, he was surrounded by people who he felt comfortable interacting with both on and off of the bimah. During a prayer by family friend Alisa Tongg, Mika interrupted her speech and said, “Auntie Alisa, I see God in that picture, in the beautiful clouds.” He had a conversation with her about God in the middle of her speech. When his mother asked him afterwards why he spoke then, he said, “I always know I can talk to her.”
“The most amazing part for us was the sense of community that I felt before, during, and after,” Arak said. “I felt so loved and I felt like Mika is such a loved person. These people who are in our community, they get him, they meet him where he is, and they support us.”
Rabbi Melody’s support started at the beginning. “She was very patient with him,” Arak said. Both she and Cantor Jill Pakman “were willing to say that they didn’t know how to handle it, how to make it right for him, but they were totally willing to learn. They totally accommodated him, and I think they both got so much joy out of seeing him succeed and feel so connected and happy.”
Pakman’s help was important as well. When studying Hebrew became too intense, she tapped into Mika’s love of memorizing favorite lines and scenes from videos and created dozens of Torah reading videos, each with a sentence or two, to help him learn in a way in which he felt comfortable. By using hand signals rather than making Mika read the words, Pakman was able to help him learn in a series of videos. “He loved these videos,” Arak said. “They became almost like his movie lines, and he memorized them that way.”
Mika also designed his own mitzvah project; he and his father, Nathan Kanofsky, built TCP’s sukkah because “he wanted to make something special where people could find God,” Arak said. The motif of a sukkah was built into the rest of the bar mitzvah, including a collection of symbols used in a stunning 3D papercraft invitation, a photo booth based on the invitation’s design and the day’s program. Along with the symbol for sukkah, Mika and his family created other themed symbols including a honeycomb for community, a palm frond for gathering and concentric teal circles for mitzvot. “Then, in his thank you [portion of his d’var Torah] he thanked God for shining down on all of us” on his special day, Arak said.
Special people contributed to Mika’s day as well. His piano teacher, Betsy Buzzelli-Clarke, who Mika calls a “special person” and favors with his attention, played Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” a song that they enjoy playing together, as well as Neil Diamond’s “America,” which Mika’s parents sang to him as they landed in the U.S. for the first time after bringing him home from Russia. And in addition to the traditional roles in a bar mitzvah service, Mika’s celebration included five prayers written by friends and family to honor community, teachers, creativity, Israel and America.
After the service ended, the family headed home for a short break before returning to the temple at night. Since Mika has sensitivities to sound and light, the Kanofsky family opted to create a silent dance party in which each participant was given a pair of headphones and although the same song played in everyone’s ears at the same time, which enables dancing in a group, everyone could control their own volume. “He hides during bar and bat mitzvah [parties],” Arak said. “He loves music, but it’s so loud and there are so many lights. So we had a silent disco. He loved it. He danced all night long.”
He brought his own special flair to the party as well. Rather than creating a photo board for people to sign at the party, Mika provided one of the scrolls he makes as a favorite hobby. In addition to the scroll placed in each invitation, Mika created scrolls for the party, and guests had the opportunity to use tools like a magnifying glass, packing tape and permanent markers to add to his scroll.
For the food, Arak said, “he wanted sushi, so we had a lot of sushi, they made a sushi boat. He wanted pie, so my mom made him 6 of his favorite pies, and then a friend of ours made these beautiful Russian-inspired cake pops. It was just right for him.” To replace traditional party games, “Nathan made him a cornhole game, and [Mika and younger brother Benjamin] were either dancing or playing cornhole all night.”
And in the morning, Arak recalls him crying: “I [asked] what’s going on, what happened? And he said, ‘I’m just so happy, and I’m just so sad that I can’t do it over again.’ He said, ‘I just want to relive it every day.’”
But the bar mitzvah process, for Mika, was about far more than the celebration. When asked what it meant for him to become a Bar Mitzvah, he told his mother, “I want to be like all the people I look up to at our temple, I want to be a leader and I want to be a Jewish man.” She describes various interactions with him in which he has described talking to God on his own terms whenever he chooses, and he cited a relationship with God throughout his bar mitzvah studies.
In addition to creating a meaningful experience for her son, Arak wanted to bring community awareness to the bar mitzvah to show that autism does not preclude human relationships and an understanding of autism should not come from stereotypes. “I feel very strongly about destigmatizing autism and helping people to understand it’s on a person-by-person basis,” Arak said.
“I feel like if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person. They’re all different.” Yet she does feel that “it does help when someone makes a connection with my son because then they think … I know this awesome person with autism so that does help them the next time they think about it. There’s a person attached to [the label].”
Arak concluded, “My son Mika is a young man who has autism, he’s not an autistic young man. That’s not the only thing he is. He’s a million other things, but that’s the one thing that defines him sometimes in our society. He is also a kid [who] loves pop music, and he loves 80s music, and he is fun to be with, and he loves New York City.” And on Oct. 22, he became a Jewish man according to his own wishes.