For two summers I worked as a counselor at Camp HASC. The camp is an orthodox Jewish summer program for special children. There, I was able to meet, get to know, and develop relationships with many children like Lior Liebling. Lior has Down syndrome, as did one of my five campers.
Working for four months out of my thirty years certainly makes me no reliable authority on the subject, but because I have that somewhat unique experience and perspective, Lior's story does not completely take me by surprise. I am well aware that children who are referred to as "disabled", "handicapped", "challenged" (or whatever the PC word of the month is) are capable of many amazing things - far more than an under-informed society would ever expect.
Watching Lior on screen daven day in and out with a focus and joy that is truly superhuman is not so astounding to someone who has witnessed firsthand a gymnasium full of boy, girls, men, and women who daven with that very same devotion.
Whether my campers or Lior commune with Hashem in a meaningful way, or retain the purity of angels, or are as close to the Almighty as mortally possible, or - as one young yeshiva classmate of Lior's suggests - are here on Earth to test us; such theological imponderables will forever remain part rationale, part hope, part insult. Praying with Lior is a tremendously moving and invigorating film, but Lior's love for davening is minimally responsible.
Ilana Trachtman's documentary, which primarily concentrates on the years, weeks, and days leading up to Lior's Bar-Mitzvah, has so much more to offer than merely introducing the world to one special child who recites prayer.
It is difficult not to begin with Devorah. Rabbi Devorah is Lior's mother; taken from him and the family by cancer about six years before Trachtman started filming. Though Devorah is never interviewed and only appears in the film through home movies, her voice and spirit carry the film. Even in our brief encounters with her, there is an undeniable positive energy emanating from the woman; whether it be from her memory, the impression she left on those who knew her, or maybe even from whatever part of us it is that stays behind after the physical body departs.
As Lior's oldest sister insightfully points out, Lior represents, with his bigger than life personality and deep attachment to Judaism, the closest connection the family has to their mother.
Trachtman wisely opens the film with a home movie of Devorah and Lior sitting together when Lior was only an infant. Devorah asks Lior what he would like to sing and offers him a range of secular kid songs that should easily meet his simple needs. Lior methodically turns down every song until his mother mentions Shalom Aleichem. By the mystical song that welcomes the Sabbath angels, Lior is engaged.
And that truly is the joy of the film, especially for someone accustomed to the black and white, formulaic, orthodox community. It is just nice to see a laid back, nonjudgmental, fluid, and buoyant form of worship. The Lieblings' Judaism may be a bit too hippie-ish for many, but to see the warmth and genuineness of it is certainly refreshing.
What is most interesting in terms of sects within Judaism, is that though Lior's family is conservodox, Lior is sent to a right wing orthodox school. The reason is quite the kiddush Hashem. Apparently, the Lieblings were told that Lior needed community and to be part of a broader, caring environment that will look out for him.
The pinnacle of Lior's young life and the film is his bar mitzvah. The tension of Praying with Lior is based on whether Lior can deliver his dvar torah on that day. Without ruining the magic, suffice it to say that the moment is transcendent.
Documentaries sometimes suffer because although they are by nature constructed to reveal truth (in that they are "unscripted"), average human beings do not (and cannot) act one hundred percent real when a camera is pointed in their direction. Therefore even documentaries are somewhat artificial. However, Lior is incapable of insincerity. In that sense he is pure and to such an extent that he draws purity from those around him. When Lior and his father visit Devorah's grave – a "scripted" set up – the result is surprisingly gut wrenching. Drawing genuineness from others - that, more than prayer, is Lior's gift.
Finally, Praying with Lior is a window into a family that has been knocked about and will continue to deal with their particular situation long after the closing credits.
Whether it be a younger sister robbed of her rightful attention. A brother who is tethered and bound by a pressing responsibility. A stepmother seeking her path within an already established family. A father looking to balance everyone's happiness. Or a young man with Down syndrome, who will outgrow his boyish cuteness and become an adult.
In adulthood Lior will face further challenges and obstacles, not to be filmed or celebrated. What he always will have to comfort him is the support of a terrific family, a compassionate community, and the songs of his people that he loves so much.