Last year, two brave mothers approached me for a meeting. They were looking to find educational opportunities for their children with special needs. Tired of turning to other synagogues where they felt less connected, or Chabad where they felt philosophically or religiously uncomfortable, they wanted Temple Israel to be place of learning and experiencing Judaism for their children, just like it had been for them and the other children we serve. It was such a beautifully authentic need that I could not ignore. Thus begun my first humble steps into Special Needs programming for our synagogue.
I quickly consulted with colleagues and then more seriously applied to the Matan Institute for Educational Directors to help me best serve the needs of this community. Matan educates Jewish leaders, educators and communities to empower them to create learning environments supportive of children with special needs, through training Institutes and consultations across North America. By advocating for the inclusion of diverse learners, Matan enables the Jewish community to realize the gift of every individual and fulfill its obligation to embrace all children regardless of learning challenges in every Jewish educational setting.
And so I set out to create our first holiday program designed for special needs children and their entire family, called the Freedom Seder. The Freedom Seder is designed to look a lot like a camp program. There is music with a song leader, it is interactive and inclusive, it aims to inspire and educate learners on multiple levels (including adults) and it is flexible. We have learned that the space should be a safe one. Children can be who they are – we don’t expect them to “sit still” or do all the activities. We hope they will participate, but we also know that some days are tougher than others and the quiet room, with Passover books and pillows and soft lighting might be a great option for a particular child on that day. We offer tactile activities, but we make sure there are alternatives for those that struggle with sensory processing disorders. Our Freedom Seder is a one hour program that gives these children the “freedom” to explore different aspects of the Seder. They can plant parsley seeds, vote on their favorite part of the story, taste different kinds of matzah and tell us which one they liked the best. They can make an afikoman bag and color in different parts of the Seder. And their parents can meet one another, get to know our clergy (who all volunteer to be present) and watch their children explore with excitement their rich and engaging tradition.
All of our families deserve and so yearn for a place that lacks judgement or places unrealistic demands on their time, energy or child. We need to provide educational opportunities that are stimulating and adjustable. At Temple Israel we are committed to providing more of these opportunities where we educate differently then we have in the past, we assume nothing, we build relationships of care and trust and we provide interactive and tactile activities at the heart of all we do. Most importantly we have reframed our goals – we do care that the content be current, engaging and deeply enriching but we are also supportive of other goals. For some of these new families the goals may be to meet new faces, hear Jewish music, or simply feel comfortable in the building. We have only just begun. This year we provided two family programs (Chanukah and Passover), we will begin to make our family Shabbat services an inclusive and warm setting for all of our families – including those whose children have special needs and we opened our Purim Carnival early for those children who need a more quiet approach to a Purim celebration. These steps towards an inclusive community for all help us break down the walls that for too long restricted some of our families from participating in Jewish life and learning.
I can say without hesitation that these hour-long programs are the most rewarding hours of my career; the joy of learning is palpable, the enthusiasm contagious and the gratitude overwhelming. Each year we read the Passover story I always find myself lingering on the moment at the sea. As the Israelites crossed between two walls of water, perhaps they found themselves also caught between feelings of gratitude and nervous anticipation of the unknown. Where would this journey lead the people? Did they know enough? Were they strong enough? Would they live up to the expectations of the God who redeemed them from the darkness? I too face this new path, humbled by what I don’t know, but grateful and eager to provide new ways for each learner to connect powerfully to our beautiful tradition.
Rabbi Melissa Buyer-Witman serves the Temple Israel of the City of New York.