Passover Pesach

The Freedom Seder

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.

Books Machzor Mishkan haNefesh

Mishkan HaNefesh for Youth – Do Children Really Need Their Own Machzor?

Each year as we approach Elul as I become immersed in the preparing for our holiest of days, I am overcome with mixed memories of my childhood in shul during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. First I remember the comfort of family; sitting next to my father, twisting the tzitzit into braids, huddling close to find warmth from the gusting cool air, cranked higher than usual to account for the surplus of congregants. I remember looking up at my father and my mother; their lips moving rhythmically to the melody of the cantor, their eyes fixed on the rabbi as he spoke, and their hands holding tight to the Machzor in their hands.  And when I wasn’t watching them, my brother and sister and I exchanged funny faces, or fidgeted in our seats, or counted the lights on the sanctuary ceiling. Those memories bring a chuckle or a smile, but I also remember the book being too heavy to hold, the words on the page overwhelmingly sophisticated or worse the language was sometimes frightening… “Who will live and who will die?” Better to go back to the fidgeting or the counting, or the braiding of those pretty strings.

There is great value in sitting with family, having adult prayer modeled for children at the earliest of ages, and yet, we know that children harbor great spiritual selves, they too yearn to express their heart’s deepest, most sincere hopes, dreams and requests for themselves and for others. They too deserve a safe space to pray on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The newly formed committee for creating Mishkan HaNefesh for Youth (a High Holy Day Machzor) believes children need to find an authentically Jewish way to pray, learn and experience the Yamim No’raim or the High Holy Days. But where do we begin? And how can you create a Machzor that attempts to stay true to the traditional text yet provide something that is rich, meaningful and accessible to a child? The task seems overwhelming, the mountain too tall to climb, and so we began with the end in mind; we began with goal setting.


What are the goals in producing a High Holy Day Machzor for Children and their families?

Together we discussed the importance of engaging children and families with the essential themes of High Holy Day worship in an age-appropriate way. We will not omit prayers that are too challenging, but we will find words, art, poetry and music that will help children enter into these big ideas at a pace and framework that has meaning and context for them. We hope too, that there will be a diverse variety of materials from which clergy teams and service leaders can craft meaningful worship experiences for children of different ages for different kinds of services. We spoke at length too, that this Machzor must reflect our steadfast commitment to inclusivity and diversity, helping our colleagues create opportunities for communities to come together, to learn, to enrich their understanding of these important days, and to offer experiences that truly engage the child and family in Jewish learning and living.

Creating a Machzor for children and families provides access to our tradition. For the parent or grandparent who will only attend a family service, it is an opportunity to provide them with a rich and meaningful experience as well. For the parent who is new to Judaism or parenting – or both, we hope this Machzor will help them guide, and teach and engage in dialogue about the themes and meaning of our Yamim No’raim. Most importantly children are not naïve or incapable of tackling the work of Teshuvah (Repentance) or Cheshbon Hanefesh (self-reflection) – we simply need to explore ways in which a child accessible and age appropriate language invites them into a prayerful time and space.


And so we ask that you dream with us…

Imagine a Machzor that helped the child feel at home; that reinforced the prayers and ideas they may be learning during the remainder of the year, creating a comfortable prayer space where there is a balance of the familiar and the new. Imagine this prayer book introduced the rich and meaningful themes, prayers, stories, and melodies of the high Holy Days – but in a way that spoke directly to the child. In doing so this Machzor would provide participants with an inspirational and spiritual worship experience that deepens their understanding, engagement and celebration of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Imagine if this new Machzor gave us the tools to create sacred community, to connect family to family, parent to child, generation to generation and individual to tradition, heritage, and God. Imagine if the High Holy Day memories of our next generation of children were a beautiful tapestry of experiences that recalled experiences of personal prayer, prayer with parents, and prayer in community.

Perhaps the goals are lofty. Yet, my most favorite time of each Religious School day is T’filah. Yes there are those that fidget and yes the prayer book is occasionally fumbled and dropped, but when the children hear the music of Mi Chamocha – their legs dangle in chairs too big for them to the beat of the drum. When we pause for silent prayer, their eyelids close out the light of the sanctuary and their lips whisper their heart’s most cherished prayer, and when I begin to tell a story from our tradition, they scoot to the edge of their seat and lean in. Children need prayer – they need it modeled for them, and they need to see the adults engage with our most challenging and fulfilling prayers. But they too need access to their own words, their own music, their own poetry to express their hopes, to ask for forgiveness of their mistakes, to forge a path of kindness for their New Year, and they need to create a covenantal relationship of their own with the creator. Only then we imagine, hope and pray that this relationship will endure and grow with each passing year so they will enthusiastically share this incredible legacy with their children too.

Rabbi Melissa Buyer is the Director of Lifelong Learning at Temple Israel in New York City.