One of my favorite childhood memories is lighting Shabbat candles with my mom. It was my special job to say the blessing. It was amazing to know that on that same day, millions of other Jewish mothers all over the world were also lighting Shabbat candles with their daughters. I always knew that no matter what, I would make sure that I shared this same experience with my children.
I’ve been thinking a lot about lighting candles with my mother as I work on my dissertation, which focuses on understanding the relationships between religious beliefs, practices and community; daily life, parenting and coping. I’ve interviewed Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox parents of children with and without autism.
And during the interviews, some mothers of a child with autism said they could not light Shabbat candles because they were afraid their child would “play with it, blow it out, touch it, or throw things at it.” It never occurred to me that lighting Shabbat candles on a Friday evening might not be possible for every Jewish woman who wanted to.
One mother of a child with autism said this:
“We do light Shabbat candles and she (her daughter with autism) takes great pleasure in blowing them out. We do let her do that. She walks away when we light the candles but she comes back down when we sing Shalom Alechiem.”
I was amazed. This mother had found a way to hold onto a religious practice that was important to her, and she was not the only mother from my study who mentioned making a similar adjustment. Blowing out the dangerous flame would allow G-d to hear her blessing, yet still maintain a safe environment for her child.
In one of my last interviews, a mother of a child with autism said, “Some people make their kid fit to their world. We fit into our daughter’s world.” That was when it all made sense to me. These mothers of children with special needs have learned how to make the changes that allow them to reconcile their religious and secular aspirations with the best interests of their child.
Throughout history, Jews have faced many challenges in order to maintain their religious beliefs, and practices and be part of their community. Through it all, they stayed strong and preserved their customs and traditions. Parents of children with autism who want to preserve a Jewish life for themselves and their family – including those children with autism – struggle every day in a similar way.
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