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Daily Breeze Article - June 23, 2007

Sunday, 24 June, 2007 - 4:03 am

`I feel it in my heart'
Special needs teen's bar mitzvah is a sign of the work the young man has done over the last year.

Staff Writer

Wesley Baer had a typical bar mitzvah on Sunday - reciting the Torah in Hebrew, chanting traditional blessings and prayers that mark the age of maturity in the Jewish tradition.

But Wesley, 13, of Torrance, is not a typical Jewish teen.

He was born with Down syndrome, a genetic condition in which an extra chromosome causes varying degrees of mental retardation.

Wesley was born in South Africa. His parents, Avi and Jessica, moved the family to Torrance more than a decade ago to provide him better access to educational and medical services.

At the time it was difficult for them to envision Wesley standing before the 100 guests that filled the room at the Fred Hess Community Center in Rancho Palos Verdes, some of whom traveled from as far as his native country to see him bar mitzvahed.

Chabad Palos Verdes Rabbi Yitzchok Magalnic, who officiated, said most special needs teens do not participate in traditional Jewish ceremonies because they can't put in the required time and effort to learn Hebrew and memorize the blessings and prayers.

"For families of children with special needs, this day is often painful instead of a celebration, because the child cannot go through the ritual," Magalnic said.

Magalnic said Wesley's case is rare.

"The accomplishment of this child is very unique," he said.

Wesley spent a year studying with Magalnic, learning not only Hebrew, but also about the significance of Jewish history, holidays and customs. To help Wesley learn the passages, the rabbi put them on a CD for him to listen to outside of their sessions.

Wesley's father is the son of a Holocaust survivor, and his mother was raised in a Jewish family. Both said they wanted Wesley to understand the importance of bar mitzvah.

"We wanted him to understand he's growing up and the responsibility of being a young man," Jessica said.

"Kids don't have an understanding of the legacy they are a part of," Avi added. "For me, seeing my son embrace his heritage was huge."

After nine surgeries and related medical problems, seeing Wesley into young adulthood has not been without its difficulties, but Jessica said it was a "team effort" from family and school staff that helped her manage. Wesley attends Calle Mayor Middle School in Torrance.

In fact, a former teacher and principal were among the attendees at the bar mitzvah.

"It really does take a village to raise a child," Jessica said.

Though Wesley has had challenges, Avi said, he has achieved in and outside of school because of his work ethic.

"From his blue belt in karate to learning for his bar mitzvah, he always does the necessary work to succeed," he said.

So when it came time to arrange the ceremony, Avi said he could have gone to a reform or a conservative synagogue - where the bar mtizvah is abbreviated and would have required less studying - but he knew Wesley was capable of doing the work.

Magalnic said 30 years ago, it was unheard of for a boy with Down syndrome to have a traditional bar mitzvah.

"We're living in a time when parents are more open to having the ceremony," the rabbi said.

During the ceremony, Wesley sat quietly. Afterward, when asked what the ceremony meant to him, he said, "I feel it in my heart."

His mom said watching Wesley's bar mitzvah reminded her of the importance of her own ceremony. "I remember having my bat mitzvah and its impact is still hitting me," she said.

Jessica Baer said she hopes her son will inspire more families of Jewish teens with special needs to put in the extra effort of a traditional ceremony.

"If Wesley can give other families hope, that's great," she said. "One of the worst things you can do is take away hope."

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