The time leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a time of introspection and intense planning. We think about the past year and reflect on how we have changed and grown. At the same time many of us are juggling work, getting kids ready for school, making travel arrangements, planning out the menu, buying brisket and baking challah. Most of us are not thinking about how we are going to get through services. For a parent of a child with a disability this thought might be on the top of their list. There might be a feeling of apprehension about the community’s ability to welcome their family in an inclusive way.
So why should you take your child to synagogue at all? Isn’t it easier to just leave them, or even stay at home with them?
A colleague recently shared the following story with me: The story is told that once the Baal Shem Tov, the great Chasidic teacher, was leading a prayer service. Within the congregation there was a simple shepherd boy, who could barely read. He didn't know any of the prayers. But as the Baal Shem Tov led the congregation, the boy was so moved that he wanted to pray. Instead of the words of the prayers, he began to recite the letters of the alef-bet. He said, "Oh God, I don't know the words of the prayers, I only know all these letters. Please, God, take these letters and arrange them into the right order to make the right words." The Baal Shem Tov heard the boy's words and stopped all the prayers. "Because of the simple words of this boy," he said, "all of our prayers will be heard in the highest reaches of Heaven."
You may take your child to services so that she can be a part of the community or so that she can find her own meaning in prayer. Whatever the answer may be the hope is that the experience will be a mainly positive one.
Here are some suggestions that might be helpful in preparing to attend High Holiday service if you are the parent of a child with a disability.
1. Call the rabbi, cantor or executive director! If you have particular concerns, requests, or if your child requires specific accommodations, please share them with the rabbi or lay person so that they can prepare themselves for you. If they are given advance notice it will be easier for them to meet your family’s needs. This should also hold true if you are attending services at a synagogue away from home. Communication in advance is always good.
2. Location, Location, Location! If you need a special seat from which to see or to hear or a seat closer to the door should you need to exit quickly, make that request known to the synagogue as soon as possible so that they can reserve seats for you in the right place. In Orthodox synagogues there may be a mechitzah (a wall or other barrier which separates the women and the men’s section). In cases like this it would be a good idea to talk through seating arrangements with the synagogue staff so that you will be prepared as to what that might mean for you and your family.
3. Set realistic expectations: Is there a part or parts of the service that you want to attend? If you know that you enjoy hearing the sermon or that you want to be there for shofar blasts or Avinu Malkeinu (my favorite part of service), then plan around that. Your child might not be able to attend the full service, and that is okay. Identify the parts of the service that might not be a good fit for your child. In some congregations there is a custom of closing the doors during the Kol Nidre service and an expectation that the congregation is completely quiet throughout. Inquire about the particular customs of the synagogue. In situations like that, you might alert the ushers beforehand that you may need to leave early. Have a discussion with your child in which you share your goals for services so that they are clear and understand what will happen.
4. Choose the service that best suits your needs. If your synagogue has a number of services, find the one that will be must comfortable for your child. In many places, there are alternative services or services geared towards families. These tend to be less formal, participatory and shorter in length.
5. Tag team it! Plan ahead with family or friends to take breaks with your child. Enlist people to spend time in the hallway reading or talking to your child. You will probably get a lot of volunteers for this one … who doesn’t need a break from a long service? The synagogue staff might also be able to suggest teen volunteers who would be happy to spend time with your child in this way.
6. Pack snacks and lunch. Services tend to run longer and there really is no reason why your child should wait to eat. It's okay to bring some food with you. Check with the synagogue staff beforehand to see if there is a place where you can sit and eat or if they have certain requirements for food brought into the building.
7. Children’s services or babysitting? Alert the synagogue staff ahead of time if your child has specific needs that will need attention while you are away from your child. If you are in your home synagogue you might ask them to consider hiring an adult who has experience with children with disabilities or perhaps even your childcare provider to help staff the babysitting room.
8. Enlist outside help. Have a babysitter meet you at home after services so that you can take a break (especially on Yom Kippur, if you are fasting). It’s also okay for you to have time to reflect, to pray and to be a part of the community and to find meaning for yourself. Deciding that you would prefer to attend services without your child is also a valid choice. Ask your rabbi for confidential support if this is financially a burden for you.
9. Be patient with people. People may not always be as kind, open or warmhearted as we would want them to be. They might not be able to identify with your needs and sensitivities. Try not to let them get in the way of your holiday spirit. Share feedback with the synagogue to help them to learn from their successes and failures. Remember, most of the people running the synagogue doors, halls and rooms are probably untrained volunteers.
10. Shift gears to the outdoors. There many hands on rituals that can take place outside of synagogue. The one that comes to mind immediately is Tashlich. Tashlich means "casting off" in Hebrew and involves symbolically casting off the sins of the previous year by tossing pieces of bread or another food into a body of flowing water. This ritual is usually performed on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. This could be a very meaningful and special way for your child to be involved in community, and to make an abstract idea very concrete and practical. Perhaps your child would enjoy learning to blow a shofar, and this would be a great time to do it!
Best wishes for a meaningful High Holiday season with your family. L’shanah tovah.
Lisa Tobin is the Director of Disabilities Initiative at the Foundation for Jewish Camp. Prior to working at FJC, Lisa worked at NJY Camps as the Director of Round Lake Camp where she helped to move the camp from being a self-contained camp serving children with disabilities to an inclusion camp. She lives in West Orange, NJ with her husband Rob and their four children Maya, Yossi, Ezra and Avi.