In honor of Jewish Disability Awareness Month (#JDAM15), I had the privilege of interviewing Rabbi Robert Levine, Rabbi Benjamin Spratt and Rabbi Leora Kaye from Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City. These three amazing religious leaders plus Mrs. Gina Levine and Dr. Nancy Crown have worked together to develop Shireinu, holiday worship services for families of individuals with special needs.

The Shireinu program was started in June 2008 when Dr. Nancy Crown mentioned to Rabbi Levine’s wife that she felt her daughter with special needs did not fit in at Rodeph Sholom and therefore could only attend services on the high holidays.

After consulting with the directors of Music for Autism and Matan, the three rabbis plus Mrs. Levine and Dr. Crown began to develop the Shrienu program. Music for Autism showed them how music could relax and engage children and parents. Matan suggested they assess their congregation to get a better understanding of what disabilities they would be gearing their program towards. The three rabbis then realized that there were so many people within their community that were hidden because of their special needs. They wanted to offer something that families could not find at other Jewish organizations – holiday worship services.

Shaping the program involved creating social stories to help attendees know what to expect when they attend services. They also focused on making sure the length of services wasn’t too long or too short. Four services are planned each year for the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, Hanukah, Purim and Passover.

Through the years they have seen an amazing Shrienu community develop of families who have found comfort in each other and able to reconnect with Judaism. They have heard parents say, “We can’t thank you enough”, “We haven’t been in a synagogue since our child was diagnosed”, and “You gave us our holidays back. You gave my child access to the Torah”. Along the way, the rabbis could not think of any major logistical or practical difficulties they had experienced. The biggest issue was their own desire to always make sure that families who attended Shrienu services always felt comfortable, accepted, and able to experience holiday services.

The Shireinu committee has developed online resources so that other synagogues and house of worships can feel inspired and be educated on how to establish a similar program. They have also created a DVD with the songs from each service so that families can have the chance to hear and share the songs at home with their children.

I asked each rabbi to provide an inspirational message to anyone who is thinking about starting similar services at their synagogue:

Rabbi Robert Levine: “You do not need a huge budget. Within every congregation there are professionals and parents who have special talents or skills, who can help build your program. Utilize these resources to help create a program for families with special needs that cannot come to synagogue as often as they would like or as a whole family. The gift that you create is phenomenal.”

Rabbi Benjamin Spratt: “This is the most important thing any religious leader can be involved in. You are sending out a message that regardless of needs or behavior, there is a place for everyone in our community and congregation.”

Rabbi Leora Kaye: “Do not worry about barriers. Developing a program is very easy to do. It is an amazing experience to provide families who up until recently did not have the chance to go to synagogue – the opportunity to engage in Judaism and spiritual life.”

Dr. Frances Victory received her PhD in Developmental Psychology at CUNY Graduate Center in New York City. Her thesis was titled, "Exploring the Role of Perceived Religiosity on Daily Life, Coping, and Parenting for Jewish Parents of Children with Autism." You can reach her at victory.frances@gmail.com.