At Temple Rodef Shalom, a bar mitzvah with a message

Lewis Jack “LJ” Seiff. Photo by Rachael Spiegel Bar & Bat Mitzvah Photography

The moments of quiet before a bar or bat mitzvah child raises their voice to lead services or read from the Torah are always pregnant seconds. One doesn’t need to be a relative or a classmate to feel the anticipation, pride, anxiety and hope in the room. When that voice breaks the silence, it signifies an entrance into the community on a new level.

When Lewis Jack “LJ” Seiff broke that silence at Temple Rodef Shalom in Arlington on Nov. 6, he did it with more than one voice. He used the voice produced through concentrated effort with his body. He also used the voice produced by his AAC, or Augmentative and Alternative Communication device, in a demonstration of years of practice and collaboration with his parents, Jenn and Josh, and special education professionals. Additionally, he used the recorded voices lent by his cousins in Manitoba to raise the lilting notes of his Torah portion to the ears of those listening in the synagogue and over Zoom.

LJ has cerebral palsy, and his verbal communication, vision and motor skills are impaired. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, more than 2 million Americans with significant expressive language impairment use AAC. In LJ’s case, both his speech, which requires intense effort, and American Sign Language, which demands dexterity with both hands, aren’t necessarily going to be intelligible to an unfamiliar listener. A speech-generating device allows LJ to select letters, words and messages, alone or in combination, to be spoken aloud in a computer-generated voice.

“I have to fight every day to be heard and to be on the same level as everyone else, but God has always been with me, protecting me — like when I try to talk and drive my wheelchair at the same time,” LJ quipped during his bar mitzvah speech, which he relayed using the Accent 1000 mounted on his electric wheelchair. “Sort of tricky, because I am left-handed and have to use the same hand to do both. Luckily, not too many crashes.”

Part of the service project for his bar mitzvah was to work with his mother, Jenn, to spread awareness about AAC and other alternative forms of communication. “The way you communicate doesn’t change the value of what you are saying,” said LJ. “As I work to help others have a voice, I am also strengthening my own.”

Rabbi Amy Schwartzman and Cantor Rachel Rhodes led the Shabbat afternoon service. After LJ’s speech, Schwartzman had to avail herself of some tissues before congratulating LJ and his family; she shared with the congregation that she remembered crying at LJ’s brit mila as well.

Earlier in the service, Cantor Michael Shochet, currently on sabbatical on the West Coast, addressed the gathering in a pre-recorded video. “I very much wanted to be here, even virtually, to be part of LJ’s special day,” he said. “I know everyone in this room and watching on-screen is beaming with pride and admiration as they watch you take your place in the chain of Jewish tradition today.”

He commended LJ for how seriously he took the bar mitzvah process, including the effort he put into understanding his Torah portion and learning the blessings.

Shochet pointed out that LJ and his older sibling, Nate, are fourth-generation members of Temple Rodef Shalom on both sides of their family. Their paternal great-grandparents were among the founders of the temple more than half a century ago.

LJ’s grandmother Judy Seiff, who previously served as nursery director and then executive director of the congregation, expressed her appreciation for the temple leadership’s accommodating and inclusive approach to the bar mitzvah service. “Despite the great deal of technology needed, they made it look seamless,” she said via email.

“I was feeling excited because I was older,” LJ said via email last week of his time at the bimah. “But I was also scared because I had a lot of people watching me. I didn’t want to lose my place.”

“I felt proud of my brother,” added Nate, who had his own bar mitzvah at Rodef Shalom about three years ago. “It’s an important day.”

Not including the Zoom attendees, Jenn Seiff estimated there were 150 people in the sanctuary and 130 at the party afterward. Both events required COVID testing and face masks. LJ’s favorite parts of the party were the video games, skeeball and live DJ. Jenn said he had a blast cutting a rug along with a pair of friends who also use motorized wheelchairs.

On the dance floor with his friends and being lifted in the air on chairs with his family members, LJ felt “like I was doing something big and this is a happy chapter in my story.”

“Rodef Shalom is doing an excellent job of creating a shul where everyone can feel comfortable and included,” said his mother. “We really felt so supported by the entire community. They just lifted us up.”

Literally and figuratively.

To view the LJ’s bar mitzvah service, visit Temple Rodef Shalom’s livestream archive (

Rachel Kohn is a freelance writer. See more of her work on and follow her on Twitter at @RachelKTweets.

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