Monday, September 14, 2015

Including kids with special needs in religion: Where there's a will, there's a way

I've never given up on the idea of finding special needs programming for Max at a congregation. Although we've been at one for the past few years that has been very welcoming and Max feels comfortable there, I still wished to find services that would engage him.

Today is the first day of the Jewish New Year. And we are going to a dedicated special needs service at the same temple we fled years ago because they weren't open-minded to doing programming. And I am so excited.

Three years ago, I wrote about my extreme disappointment with this temple. After I inquired about the possibility of starting a service for children with special needs, I was frustrated to get an email from the head of community noting "I want to be clear that I am not sure what I can provide in light of the financial difficulties facing synagogues." Not exactly a conversation starter. The rabbi offered to send me to a summit on building an inclusive community. It seemed to me that I shouldn't be the one and only person to spearhead the effort.

That no-can-do attitude was the main reason we quit that temple. We found another local one that offered services for children with autism and decided to try it. But there were throngs of people milling around, and Max was too intimated to even walk through the doors. The following year, we went to a place of worship housed in a former home. Max seemed content. Sabrina knew kids from her school and Dave and I knew some of the parents. They had great holiday activities for children, and although Max didn't participate he didn't mind being there.

Then a friend told me about the new rabbi at the temple we had left. He's a great, open-minded guy, she said. Get in touch. So I did. I shared the post I'd written about our previous experiences. When we spoke on the phone, I pointed out that starting a program didn't have to cost much at all, and noted that surely someone in the congregation would have experience working with kids with special needs. He said he'd see what he could do. I confirmed that some positions (including the "head of community") would be turning over during the summer.

We met the rabbi in person at a fair over the summer and he was exceptionally warm. He invited us to experience the holidays at the temple. A couple of weeks ago, I emailed him to see if he had suggestions for a pro who would do a bris (circumcision) for the baby, and whether we might be able to use the small, beautiful chapel.

He gave me a list of people. He welcomed us to use the space. Then he told me that, following our conversation, he'd worked hard to add a new program to the High Holiday offerings: a service for families and children with unique needs and challenges called "B'Yachad" (translation: together). It would consist of activities and crafts, led by the Director of Education. It sounded right up Max's alley.

I had tears in my eyes when I read that. I am not underestimating the amount of work involved in putting together a program but still, it is not like building the Wailing Wall. Mainly, it starts with clergy who understand that kids with special needs may need extra accommodations at places of worship, and who are willing to make it happen.

That's where we will be today. I hope Max is into it but no matter what, I am glad for the opportunity, both for Max and kids like him.

The High Holidays run from the two days of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) to Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). The days in between are known as the Ten Days of Penitence, a time seen as an opportunity for change.

I hope religious leaders across the country will use this period of contemplation to consider what their own congregations could be doing to welcome children with special needs. I can think of few better ways to do right by God.

Image source: Flickr/Robin


  1. It's not easy. We tried but ended up making too many people feel excluded. The original attempt was deemed not sensitive enough to those with sensory issues. Next attempt was deemed too boring and unengaging by kids who had an issue other than sensory ones. We keep trying though. It's worth it.

  2. My child has never been officially diagnosed with anything besides a speech delay due to hearing loss, but she is "spectrum-y." She has many sensory issues. She is amazingly bright, but communicates better with adults than children. We're Catholic. We started taking her to mass at age 5. I started with a daily mass on Fridays instead of the weekly mass on Sundays. Daily mass is a half-hour vs an hour and is much less attended. It doesn't meet Holy obligation, but I figured God would forgive me. At age 7, it was time for her to make first communion, confession, and confirmation. CCD at our church is held in an old, cold basement. I remember hating it as a child. My daughter found it intolerable. Add to it, teachers she didn't know and throngs of kids-many of whom she didn't know. It wasn't going to work. Thankfully, my priest is a kind man and wise soul who said, "if she won't come to us, we will come to her." He met with her every Tuesday afterschool alone in the church for a half an hour. As she is bright, they had many theological discussions that went well beyond what most seven year olds are capable of. He, through many discussions, convinced her that her attendance at Sunday masses were required of her, but CCD was something that didn't need to occur. She amazed me the first Sunday she awoke and asked to attend to church. She never took her eyes off her beloved priest, who smiled and winked at her several times during the service. She made her communion and confirmation that year, with all of the other kids, because of her priest. During the year her priest heard her sing, realized she has perfect pitch and introduced her to the choir director. Youth choir's minimum age is 6th grade, but they agreed this might be the perfect place for her to gain fellowship in the church. This year, at age 8, she sings with the youth choir. For us, there was no program. There was just slight bending of the rules and a priest who was willing to include her. We are so grateful to him.

  3. In the Bible, we are called to make disciples of ALL the nations.

  4. An important post.
    Here's a Jewish educational inclusion blog:
    Highly recommend, and the blogger is lovely! Maybe someone for you to connect with?

    1. Can't believe I am just seeing this now! Thanks, Emily, for your kind words. Ellen, you still know where to find me if you need me ;-)

  5. Wonderful news - that just shows how important it is to keep trying.

  6. I am Catholic and in my church it is advertised in the bulliten that if you have a child with special needs that you want included in Faith Formation to contact the director of Faith Formation. There are no seperate special needs classes but sometimes parents stay and other times there are aides(like myself) to assist.

  7. Thought of you just a week or two ago when I read that a new church was opening in the tiny, midwestern town where I was raised that will cater to families of adults and children with special needs. Hope you're having a great day!

  8. That's so wonderful! Shana Tova! How was it???


Thanks for sharing!

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