I have always looked forward to attending synagogue services on Rosh Hashanah. Hearing the shofar often felt like a spiritual cleansing: a reminder that this was the time of year to think about your wrong doings and ask God for forgiveness.
But one thing I have always disliked was listening to congregants chit chat with each other. My problem wasn’t the noise itself; it was more that they didn’t pay attention to the rabbi or cantor. They didn’t appreciate the sacred value of the services.
I had a totally different and absolutely amazing experience this year on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, when I volunteered at Manhattan’s Congregation Rodeph Shalom Special Needs Worship Services, SHIREINU. I observed an amazing, spiritual, welcoming atmosphere.
Children and young adults with different special needs ranging from toddlers to 20-something years old attended the service, along with their families. Parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and friends of kids with special needs came together to share it with their loved ones. They greeted each other in a warm and caring manner; they caught up since the last time they had spoken. There’s a community here.
The service’s designers paid such close attention to the details that made the service comfortable. They partitioned off half the synagogue’s ballrooms and lined the chairs up with plenty of space in between them. The back doors were open and there was a quiet room nearby. They filled a back table with snacks such as cheese, crackers, vegetables and hummus. Volunteers like me stood ready to help or answer any questions.
At the front stood a small Torah ark, and to the right was a large board on which was written the schedule of the service. An older congregant with special needs had volunteered to move the arrow to help everyone identify the appropriate part of the service. To the left there was a large picture of a shofar on the wall and a table with small pieces of paper. These papers had the names of the different shofar sounds written on them. There was also a sign language interpreter available.
At 48 minutes, the services were short and not once did I hear an adult quiet their child. First, Rabbi Robert Levine greeted everyone. He told a short story related to his own childhood and the High Holidays.
Then, Rabbi Benjamin Spratt welcomed families and reminded them that they could engage in the service in any way they wanted. They could clap, dance, walk around, or get a snack. However, they were not allowed to injure another person or any object in the room.
Next, there was singing, guitar playing and a brief Rosh Hashana story (with props!). The rabbi walked around with the Torah. Everyone got a chance to kiss the Torah in an orderly manner. Volunteers also passed around small tambourines for congregants to use while singing during “instrument time.”
My favorite part of the service was the shofar song. The guitar played and everyone sang. Individuals with special needs and their families were invited to pick a sound and tape it on the shofar. This became an activity for all to enjoy and become fully engaged in the spiritual aspect of the holidays. Rabbi Spratt also briefly blew the shofar in a quiet manner so as not to overwhelm anybody in the room.
It was a beautiful experience to observe these families engage in their High Holiday service. Children and their parents felt visibly comfortable, welcomed and accepted in a synagogue environment, which often isn’t the case for them. They enjoyed and appreciated a ritual that others may often take for granted as they socialize services away. For me, this was the best High Holiday service I had ever attended.
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