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What Works: Ideas & Initiatives

special needs service
The special needs service
A Rosh Hashannah Service for Special Needs

While Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City has been educating children with special needs since 1998, last year’s first special needs Rosh Hashanah service generated unprecedented gratitude. “My child is 12,” said a woman fighting back tears. “We have never been able to comfortably attend High Holiday services until now.”

During Congregation Based Community Organizing conversations, families and children with special needs had expressed the desire to worship together in an accessible, inclusive, and sensitive environment. In response, Rabbi Robert Levine and his wife Gina assembled a task force comprised of professionals and congregants to plan such a service for the second day of Rosh Hashanah. To ensure an effective service, they hired a consultant to help establish its framework, invited both members and non-members who were searching for the right worship environment, responded to their advance questions, and sent interested attendees a visual outline of the service in preparation for the experience.

On Friday, September 10, almost 100 Jews arrived (beyond volunteers, the number of attendees had been limited in order not to overwhelm the participants). A trained team of Rodeph Sholom congregants, including youth group members, greeted each family as they entered the synagogue, escorted them to the service, and made sure they were comfortable throughout the morning. The hour-long service—shorter than typical for Rosh Hashanah—was musically oriented, engaging worshippers with autistic spectrum disorders and other developmental disabilities. The instrumentation considered best for this congregation—shakers, tambourines, and drums—was carefully timed so as to not be over-stimulating (meanwhile, an adjoining “Quiet Room” with less sensory stimulation was available for those who needed a break). A pictorial schedule next to the bimah provided worshipers with visual cues; two interpreters translated the service into sign language; and attendees were invited to leave their seats and get close to the Torah. One 30-year-old man touched the Torah for the first time. Afterwards, the entire congregation joined together, connecting, enjoying healthy snacks, and continuing the festive feeling of the day.

This moving spiritual experience for participants, leaders, and volunteers alike has inspired Rodeph
Sholom to continue planning more special needs services, not only on Rosh Hashanah but on Shabbat
and other holidays.

For more information on the special needs service, contact Rabbi Robert N. Levine at, 646-454-3020. For more information on Congregation Based Community Organizing, contact Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Just Congregations,, 617-928-0012.

When a Congregation Emulates Woodstock

Every two years, Congregation M'kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey puts on an all-day, community-wide outdoor party called the M’korstock Festival of Music, Arts & Shalom.

It all began when the congregation—comprised of many talented musicians and avid music fans—decided to mark the upcoming 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival (August 1969) by holding a Woodstock-like outdoor concert. An enthusiastic steering committee planned the event and enlisted the regional Gift of Life Organ Donor Program as a charitable partner.

On May 31, 2009, 1,500 community members showed up and saw the four-acre synagogue property transformed into a colorful, festive arena of the arts. More than 40 juried crafters displayed glassware, pottery, mosaics, jewelry, tie-dye clothing, and more. The kindergartners and first- and second-graders in the temple’s religious school opened the festival with “Let the Sunshine In” in both English and Hebrew. The main stage featured such artists as Grammy-winner Julie Gold, the Unity Choir (composed of the M’kor Shalom Choir and Antioch Baptist Church Choir), and M’kor Shalom’s Klezmer band Izzy; a small stage hosted young people’s entertainers.The synagogue’s teen musical “Purim Shpiel” was reprised, and the M’korstock Teen Band performed a selection of popular and Jewish music.

The day ran smoothly, thanks to 175 volunteers, aged 16–90, wearing bright yellow T-shirts. Shuttle buses provided continuous transport to and from the offsite parking lot. Handicapped parking was plentiful. Tickets were affordable and the refreshments bountiful.

The May 2011 M’korstock plans to feature Jewish rock star Rick Recht and ’70s folk duo Aztec Two-Step.

This biennial event has touched every synagogue member, raising the congregation’s spirit and pride. Plus, as a big bonus, both M’kor Shalom and Gift of Life have raised needed funds as well as awareness about organ donation.

To learn how your congregation can create its own “Synagogue Stock,” contact Debbie Mitchell, M’korstock Committee Chair, at and visit M’korstock on Facebook.

The House That Ryan Built

Having grown up in a family that had sponsored and worked on several Habitat for Humanity houses and seen their new homeowners presented with keys, Ryan Coretz, 13, of Temple Israel in Tulsa, Oklahoma asked the guests at his bar mitzvah to make a contribution to Habitat for Humanity for “Ryan’s House,” his bar mitzvah project. Ryan’s family and friends donated $8,911—which he thought was enough to construct a home, until the local Habitat Executive Director Paul Kent gently informed him of the real cost: $60,000. He suggested that Ryan team up with businesses to sponsor a house, but Ryan wanted to build “Ryan’s House” and “go it alone.” With a book listing charitable foundations and their average donations in hand, he researched and then contacted like-minded foundations, explaining his bar mitzvah project. After asking 20 foundations for a specific amount to help realize “his” house, he raised the additional $51,089.

As a minor, Ryan had to apply for and receive special permission to work (sans power tools and ladder climbing) on the construction of “Ryan’s House.” For 10 weeks, he joined the building crew. Then, at the house dedication—supported by his family, several friends, and his rabbi, Charles Sherman—Ryan presented the keys to the new owner. “It was an exciting, fun day,” Ryan says, “and the completion of an important project—a mitzvah.

Ryan plans to raise another $60,000 to build a Habitat home in spring 2012.


Union for Reform Judaism.