What if Esther Had a Child with Special Needs?

Photo by Scott Weiner; courtesy

by H. Glenn Rosenkrantz

Philadelphia – March 6, 2012 – On its face, there was nothing unique about this Purim carnival, with children parading around like Esther and Mordecai, hamantashen and popcorn for the grabbing, and holiday-themed fun and games.

But on closer look, this one stood apart.

Over in the corner, four-year-old Sophie Bassman helped her older brother, Julian, 7, pack traditional Purim food baskets – shalach manot – to be delivered later to seniors.

“He follows her lead,” said their grandfather, Myron Bassman. “She gets it. And he’s learning by her example and by everything that is happening here.”

This is Jewish family education in its most promisingly expansive sense, with the common denominator here being families raising a child with special needs.

Julian is autistic, and like most of the other children with special needs at this holiday event at Mishkan Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue here, he’s found a place where Jewish immersion and identity building is a birthright, despite mental or physical ability.

The synagogue is the home of Celebrations! – a initiative offering Jewish social and educational programming to children with special needs and their families.

Established just over two years ago, the program is drawing a growing number of families from throughout southeast Pennsylvania in search of an inclusive and welcoming Jewish learning environment where they can participate and interact as a family, with others just like them.

“My own son was diagnosed with autism, so I understand the full depth of exclusion from a community,” said Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer, director of the Celebrations! program. “There just aren’t a whole lot of synagogue-based programs like this.

“What makes this unique is that it brings parents and children together so they can learn and be together in a Jewish environment. We are modeling ways for special-needs families to be Jewish.”

Central to the program are once-a-month Shabbat programs tailored for such families. Services first, followed by Kiddush, and then family learning time before the kids go one way, for more specialized activities with teen volunteers, and the parents another, for social and peer support.

Holiday celebrations, such as the Purim carnival and a Passover seder, are scattered through the year and offer participating families more opportunities for Jewish educational engagement.

“There is nothing exactly like this in our area,” said Nadine Silver, whose two sons, Ethan, 6, and Aaron, 4, are both autistic, and who drives 45 minutes from Bristol Borough to attend the Mishkan Shalom programs for families like hers.

“There is no congregation that is set up to be inclusive enough at this time to welcome kids who learn differently or who have a different way of processing sensory information or have another difference. This is our best opportunity to participate in a meaningful way. Here, Ethan and Aaron can be happy about being Jewish, and that is what this is all about.”

Attention to Jews with special needs – and the moral imperative of inclusion – is climbing on the Jewish communal agenda, with February being Jewish Disability Awareness Month and at least two major conferences dedicated to the issue in recent years.

But on-the-ground programs that address real needs are still the exception, and synagogues are often unprepared to accommodate and nurture this population.

As centerpiece venues for community engagement, some synagogues are paying attention to the Mishkan Shalom model, and Celebrations! is getting philanthropic support to help build it and replicate it elsewhere.

A recent grant from The Covenant Foundation is allowing Mishkan Shalom to add staff to strengthen and grow the program, and to build a curriculum for use by other synagogues nationally.

For Mishkan Shalom, which boasts about 250 member households and has a long history of inclusion and diversity, the special needs initiative is a natural, said Rabbi Linda Holtzman.

“It is so clear that if we are really interested in building Jewish community, then that means the entire Jewish community.

“There are families who can’t celebrate Shabbat with their special needs kids in a way that feels okay, or they don’t get to celebrate holidays in a community that is genuinely welcoming and accommodating. In the Jewish tradition, that is just not right.”

Kaplan-Mayer agreed, and said that Celebrations! highlighted how “the Jewish community can support and welcome not only children with special needs, but their whole families.”

Back in the synagogue’s social hall, 27-year-old Claire Madden of Penn Valley, who has Cerebral palsy, was dressed in a festive, polka-dotted Purim outfit and taking it all in. A longtime member of the synagogue, she marked her Bat Mitzvah at Mishkan Shalom and works there for a few hours every week and volunteers for the Celebrations! program.

“If Celebrations! had existed when Claire was little, it would have been so much easier and I wouldn’t have had to break down so many doors to let my daughter in,” said her mother, Andrea. “As it is though, this is now her Jewish home.”