For my dissertation research, I have focused on studying Jewish parents of children with and without autism. During these interviews, many parents of children without autism discussed the importance of taking their child to services so that he or she could experience a Jewish environment. Parents of children with autism talked about how they often felt distressed when attending services with their child.
One mother mentioned noticing how adults changed their body language around her son. Another mother said, “When you are at synagogue and it is some kid’s bar mitzvah, I totally understand you don’t want anyone to be disruptive but just the dirty looks … after the service we may be sitting at the luncheon and people are looking because he is stuffing food in his mouth. If we try to go to a children’s service, people are turning around and looking. That feels very unwelcoming.”
A father said he felt as though others were judging his parenting skills. “When your child is perceived as having a mental illness which is an organic issue then I should not be judged, deemed to be a lazy parent or have a bratty kid.”
It’s different, however, at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in New York City, which for the past few years has successfully implemented holiday services – Rosh Hashana, Hannukah, Purim, and Passover – for their Shireinu Special Needs Community.
I recently had the opportunity to attend their first inclusive Friday night service. It was clear that much time and effort had been put into organizing and implementing supports that would create such a welcoming environment. Here is what I saw and heard:
Services were in the ballroom with wide aisles available to walk around and dance. The back doors remained open. An environment that was neither over-stimulating nor overwhelming.
Outside the ballroom, a quiet room available.
An American Sign Language interpreter translated the service.
A large screen power point presentation of the service. The order of the service was presented on the left side of the screen. Each slide included Hebrew and English prayer text in the middle and page number in the upper right corner.
The rabbis reminded everyone that at any time they could stand up and dance if they felt spiritually moved.
Small tambourines were handed out toward the end of the service helping to create a musical experience that again was neither over-stimulating nor overwhelming.
I truly enjoyed watching the congregation be apart of this amazing inclusive experience. The highlight of the service for me was when individuals with special needs made any kind of loud noise: no one looked around and stared. No one made them or their family uncomfortable. This sense of acceptance helped to create a welcoming spiritual environment for everyone. The Shireinu Special Needs services are organized by Rabbi Benjamin Spratt and a committee of congregants and community leaders. This amazing group of leaders has done a wonderful job providing many families of individuals with special needs the opportunity to experience such a warm, inclusive service.
Frances Victory is a Developmental Psychology PhD candidate at CUNY Graduate Center in New York City. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org