A House of Prayer for All Children
by Jane Herman

The Blessed Holy One minted all human beings with the same stamp with which the first person was made, yet not one of us is like anyone else. Therefore, we are each obligated to maintain, “On my account the world was created” (Mishnah Sanhedrin, 4:5).

One Shabbat eve last year, Netta, born with agenesis of the corpus colossus (a congenital brain condition), stood proudly on the bimah of Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul, Minnesota with the other kindergartners and first graders. The seven-year-old—sporting a new turquoise polka dot dress with a bright yellow bow—did not join her classmates in song, but she used her hands to motion the meaning of the lyrics. She also beamed boldly at her mother each time their eyes met. “We can live with that!” says her mother, Allyson Perling. “At the beginning of the year, Netta could not even sit in music class because the noise bothered her. But she’s had a team behind her, supporting and coaching, teaching and redirecting, cajoling and applauding…that night, she was loving it all: the music, the movement, and the people.”

At Mount Zion Temple the message is simple: “Every child, regardless of abilities and needs, deserves a quality Jewish education, with the goal of total inclusion with the mainstream population, [allowing for] appropriate assistance and modification,” says Stephanie Fink, former director of education. “We’re proud to tell parents, ‘Of course your child can participate. We can help your child succeed within his/her abilities. We just need to figure out how.’”

To achieve that goal, KULAM (Kids Understanding and Learning at Mount Zion) offers an individualized inclusion program in which a trained educator interfaces with families; develops and communicates learning plans; trains the staff advocates who work with students with special needs in the classroom; checks in with the staff, children, and parents frequently; and makes mid-course corrections when necessary.

Brandon, 15, does not speak—but that didn’t stop this Mishpacha Family Learning student at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California from becoming a bar mitzvah. To communicate, he used a modified version of American Sign Language, signing the Sh’ma, the Ve’ahavta, “Thank You, God” (his favorite Jewish song), and, following his father’s and grandfather’s aliyot, the maftir aliyah (the last aliyah which, in some congregations, is reserved for a bar or bat mitzvah).

“I never expected my son to have a bar mitzvah,” says Dina Kaplan, “but Brandon found a spiritual connection at Or Ami and loves being part of the congregation,” participating in the congregation’s Mishpacha sessions with his father, as well as in plays, cooking, games, and crafts with students his age (assisted by one of his parents or a specially trained teen volunteer); joining his family for Shabbat and holiday services; and, several times a year, signing a prayer or carrying the Torah at Or Ami’s special needs services.

Jason, 7, who has autism, found a welcoming congregational community at Temple Kol Ami Emanu-El in Plantation, Florida. Last year, he and three other students with special needs joined eighteen other classmates in arts and crafts, worship, singing songs, and learning the Hebrew alphabet, assisted by the classroom teacher, a high school aide, and a second, special needs teacher—whose salary was paid for by several b’nai mitzvah students as part of their mitzvah projects. The second grader now recites the Shabbat blessings over the wine and challah, and last spring he asked the Four Questions at the family’s seder. “There’s no reason he can’t have a bar mitzvah,” his mother Laura says.

Steven*, who has a learning disability, experienced stumbling blocks on the way to bar mitzvah—his parents were originally told that he wouldn’t be able to learn Hebrew for the occasion. That’s when they enrolled him in “Alternative Hebrew,” the multi-grade, self-contained Sunday class at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey, which gives some twenty children with learning disabilities in grades 4–7 the opportunity to study Hebrew amongst themselves as well as Jewish studies with their peers who are not learning disabled. (For students whose learning disabilities make religious school integration impractical, Temple Beth-El offers “Jacob’s Ladder,” a self-contained Hebrew/Jewish learning program for grades K–3 and for grades 4–7. These children do participate in the school’s music, family, and schoolwide programs.)

About five years ago, Steven proved the naysayers wrong—he read Hebrew on the occasion of his bar mitzvah. He’s continued with his Jewish journey, education co-director Lisa Friedman says, becoming confirmed and participating in his temple’s North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) program. Now he’s a college freshman at the University of Hartford in Connecticut.

Congregational programs for children with special needs abound. At Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA, for example, special needs coordinators observe students in the classroom, meet individually with parents, and train teachers and high school aides to engage the children; in addition, the religious school offers small-group Hebrew instruction for students with dyslexia and others whose disabilities affect language learning skills. As part of B’Yachad, a joint initiative of Temple Isaiah and Temple Emunah (Conservative), both in Lexington, Massachusetts, experienced teaching aides support students with special needs one-on-one in the classroom, and the staff is encouraged to be open to new pedagogic approaches which Rebecca Winters, the congregation’s vice president of education, says, “may be key to one student’s success.”

“Jews with disabilities are not invisible anymore,” emphasizes Becca Hornstein, a consultant on disability and family-related issues and executive director of the Council for Jews with Special Needs. Twenty-six years ago, she began searching for religious education for her nine-year-old son who has autism and was told, “We’re not aware of Jews with disabilities.” At the time, the fledging special education program she soon helped launch at Temple Chai, Phoenix, Arizona instructed four students; today, 12% of the congregation’s religious school children have a special need, and the temple is there to help.

Still, Hornstein acknowledges that religious schools remain challenged to find appropriate resources.

Inclusion Ideas

To make the most of the bar/bat mitzvah experience, Hornstein notes that “people with disabilities have unique gifts which should be reflected in the ceremony. Ask yourself: How best can this person’s talents and feelings about Judaism be expressed? Does he or she have a particular love for music or dance? Can he/she paint an interpretation of the Torah portion? We should celebrate the unique strengths these children possess.”

She also advises parents to be patient, stressing that even the smallest religious school program can grow, particularly if the educators are willing to make individualized modifications for the students’ benefit. For example, she says, nonverbal students have used voice-output devices to deliver a d’var Torah at their bar or bat mitzvah.

“If your child reaches thirteen, you have a bar or bat mitzvah,” says Rabbi Shira Joseph, spiritual leader of Congregation Sha'aray Shalom in Hingham, Massachusetts and mother of a daughter with special needs. She recommends that parents and educators “create a celebration that is meaningful and within the skill level of the child.” One nonverbal youngster in her congregation who uses a wheelchair wore a tallit his loved ones had made for him; held a small Torah scroll; and, once it was opened, also held the yad as a family member read the parashah.

Shelly Christensen, program manager at the Jewish Community Inclusion Program for People with Disabilities of Minneapolis, chair of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Disabilities Task Force, and author of the Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities, encourages synagogue leaders to be proactive in offering inclusion opportunities to families. She tells of one rabbi who called the family of an eleven-year-old child who has autism to schedule the date for his bar mitzvah. Often in families with special needs there is anger with God, she says, and it is up to the clergy to keep the doors open and show that the synagogue can be supportive in many ways.

Hornstein and Shelley K. Rosenberg tell the story of another rabbi, aware that the bar mitzvah boy might wander throughout the sanctuary, who explained to the congregation that the entire room was the bimah that day. “The ultimate success of such a [welcoming] ceremony is a triumph, not only for the individuals involved, but for the entire Jewish community,” they write. “The bar or bat mitzvah of a young person with a disability demonstrates vividly what Judaism is, or should be, about.”

To engage children with special needs in temple services, Hornstein points to the Simchat Shabbat model at Congregation Beth Israel, Scottsdale, Arizona, a collaborative endeavor with the Council for Jews with Special Needs. The forty-minute service includes music and stories to engage even children with the most severe cognitive impairment; each young person stands (or sits in a wheelchair) on the bimah to receive an honor; and a “no-shush” policy allows everyone to express prayers in personal ways.

To integrate children with special needs into the religious school classroom, Simona Sklash, director of Temple Kol Ami Emanu-El’s religious school, offers these “must-haves”: an experienced special needs teacher who can work cooperatively with the classroom teacher; repetition of instructions and explanations for students; and direct, clear, and regular communication with their parents—both in person and in writing.

Hornstein adds that congregations should consult with speech, occupational, and physical therapists as well as other local professionals who work with students with special needs; often these individuals can assist in training religious school teachers and classroom aides.

“If a child can make the educational and social transitions [necessary to be] in a regular classroom, inclusion is great,” Christensen says. “Synagogues are moving in that direction—using classroom aides, adapting the curriculum, providing individualized tutoring or other accommodations—thereby creating meaningful Jewish social connections for children with special needs and firsthand awareness of disabilities for their classmates and peers.”

“If your student needs help expressing himself orally, prep him/her privately before class, choose simpler questions, present multiple-choice questions, and wait longer for the answer,” say Dr. Shana Erenberg and Alan Levin in the article “Eight Techniques for Helping Students Succeed. “And if your student needs help organizing materials, give him/her the materials one step at a time.”

Children with ADHD can benefit from reducing the number of concepts covered at one time, relating information to the student’s experiences, and providing consistent review before introducing new information; for other Union for Reform Judaism recommendations visit the Union's special needs website.

Union for Reform Judaism Support

The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) offers additional resources and expert guidance. At the Union's disabilities website you’ll find such resources as how to create lifecycle events for children with special needs, how to develop successful disability programs, a guide for parents navigating the special education system, nonverbal learning disabilities, sensory integration dysfunction, ADHD, and more. At the Union's synagogue architecture website you’ll discover “Low Cost Accommodations for Accessibility in Your Synagogue” and information on assisted technologies. If you'd like more information, or to follow up with a specific question, please call the URJ Knowledge Network at 855-URJ-1800 or email URJ1800@urj.org.

In the camp setting as well, the URJ welcomes children with special needs and encourages their full participation. Campers with autism may use a “visual prayerbook” during Shabbat worship. During sports activities, those in wheelchairs may play baseball by batting and having a bunkmate run the bases. Each of the Union’s twelve summer camps employs inclusion specialists who work with children with special needs and their families—both before and during their stay at camp—making modifications to enable students to participate in the same activities as their peers. At the Union’s Kutz Camp in Warwick, New York, a Mitzvah Corps initiative pairs adolescents on the autism spectrum with teen mentors from NFTY’s leadership program who work alongside the staff to ensure the kids’ full camp participation. And at Camp Dream Street Mississippi, cosponsored by the URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi and NFTY’s southern region, children with physical disabilities (primarily mobility impairments) enjoy a five-day/four-night camp experience, supported by NFTY teens serving as one-on-one counselors as well as a team of professionals and support staff.

Called upon to provide Jewish education and enrichment for all of our children—the prophet Isaiah commands, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people” (56:7)—the Reform Movement is responding with compassion, creativity, and commitment.

—Jane E. Herman (JanetheWriter at rj.org), writer and assistant to Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

Union for Reform Judaism.