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Faith Can Be Simple: Praying with Lior by Ilana Trachtman.

Praying With Lior
An inspiring lesson of faith.

-- Ben Burrows

The movie Praying with Lior is the story of a Bar Mitzvah and the lives which led up to its celebration. Lior’s story is special in many ways, however, that a standard Bar Mitzvah story. could never be. Lior was born with Down’s syndrome, which impeded his mental and physical development, but Jewish liturgical celebration became an organizing principle in Lior’s life, even as an infant. The movie includes early scenes from Lior’s life, as his mother, Rabbi Devorah Bartnoff, cradled the baby in her arm, and connecting with him through Jewish prayer and Jewish music. When Bartnoff perishes from cancer early in Lior’s life, it is something which could have traumatized Lior, and cut him off from relationships with other people. But Lior is supported by the powerful love from his brother and two sisters, by the love of his father, Rabbi Mordecai Liebling, and by the addition of a loving stepmother, Lynne Iser.

Prayer continues to bring structure to Lior’s life, and nurtures him through mainstreaming in Jewish Day School at Politz Hebrew Academy. Lior is respected both for his knowledge of the service and for his moral center. He is loved by his fellow students for his optimism and for his fortitude. Where someone who is different in so many ways from his peers might have been shunned and excluded, Lior’s progress and inclusion was a moral project both for his teachers and his classmates. Where someone with Lior’s difficulties might have been segregated, or backleveled with younger students, Lior’s integration with his peers, and the acceptance of his humanity which they accept, make "tough street" movies like 10 Mile or Boys from the Hood seem out of touch with a moral universe in which Lior thrives.

Lior’s story, however, is no mere Horatio Alger story for Downs Syndrome. It is also in some ways a story of communing with his deceased mother through his own davening – of establishing a bond with the Shechina, which in its simplicity and sincerity recalls stories of the Baal Shem Tov. Indeed, the images of his mother, and of his mother’s grave, bookend the story of Lior’s movie. The understanding of his family and friends show us how to be grateful, as the blessing teaches us, for those who are created differently. It is through such parables that the film’s objectives are achieved. Lior’s Bar Mitzvah at Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia was a joyous community celebration, as well as an individual achievement.

The movie website gives us further insights about Director Ilana Trachtman’s point of view, as she nurtured this movie into being:

According to the National Organization on Disability, over 54 million Americans are disabled. Less than half of our houses of worship are handicapped accessible. This number alone speaks to the abandonment of the disabled in faith communities. In a society that literally "worships" perfection and same-ness, individuals with physical and cognitive disabilities are dismissed and discriminated against everywhere. In the place where they should receive the most welcome and derive the most comfort -- their faith communities -- parents of children with special needs often hear "your child shouldn't be here."

Our goal for this film and outreach campaign is to create a sea change in the way we as a society value each individual. Lior's story presents a dramatic opportunity to demonstrate the contribution that every individual can make, no matter how "special." While society may view inclusion as the right or nice thing to do, Lior's example shows us that his presence actually enhances everyone else's religious experience. Lior's Bar Mitzvah is wonderful for him, but really, as one synagogue member says, "it's for us."

We should be reminded in this season, as we contemplate both our liberation from Egypt, the giving of the Law at Sinai, and the devastations of the Holocaust, that Hitler was determined to exterminate not only Jews, but all who were created differently. It is through our dedication to order and a moral life of prayer, that we can give light to the world, as Lior clearly has throughout his still short life.

Praying With Lior will shortly be available on DVD. Preparation materials are available at the movie website.

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