Including People with Special Needs in Religious Life

Including People with Special Needs in Religious Life
Pure joy carrying the Torah at practice

I have been writing about how many religious communities have no place for people with disabilities since I started blogging five-and-one-half years ago. Having grandkids with special needs can do that to a grandmother. I have heard explanations from we don’t do that to we have to create something separate to accomplish that. But all along, the answer was very easy. Just open the door.

That just happened for my family at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation (JRC) in Evanston, Illinois. When my twelve-year-old granddaughter started preparing for her Bat Mitzvah, her fifteen-year-old sister, who has a significant language disability and is anxious in front of crowds, requested to have one as well. She claimed she wanted to be on the stage and her little sister generously agreed to share her big day.

My daughter cautiously broached the topic with Rabbi Rachel Weiss. In the past, at other congregations, including her older child was a big deal. There was a Sunday School experience many years ago in which she sat in the corner coloring with a volunteer helper, ignored by the teacher and other children. When I asked if there was a better way to include her, I was told the congregation didn’t really do that.

I wrote about this experience in The Forward, March 2, 2014. In the article The Children Left Out of Judaism, I said,

My grandchild with special needs failed Sunday school. Actually, to be accurate, Sunday school failed her. Because the teacher had no idea how to include her in the class, even after her mother shared some ideas, she spent most of her time coloring with a teen volunteer. She was “welcome,” but only in the sense that she could physically be present as long as she didn’t disrupt too much.

I began to wonder how families of children with special needs could find a place in religious communities. Did the importance of formal prayer and following religious customs precisely trump the importance of making religious institutions truly accessible? Sadly, it seemed that many congregations did not have a deep understanding of what it would take to be truly welcoming to the LGBTQ, interracial, interfaith and special needs communities.

In our quest for a truly inclusive Jewish community, our family asked for accommodations at several congregations, only to be told that, while they were open to the concept of my grandchild coming there, they had no real plan for the inclusion of her or our family as a whole. As a family with a typically developing child as well, we were seeking a community that embraced our whole family, not just part of it. What we longed for was to belong somewhere together. What we got, if there was any interest at all, was definitely separate and not equal.

At one congregation, my grandchild with disabilities was very welcome, but only at services for younger kids or in a separate service for families that included people with special needs. I worked hard with that synagogue to create a few of these services, but it never quite jelled and attendance dwindled. It was a good effort with sincere intentions based on what I now realize was a flawed concept. My granddaughter did not fit into the congregational community. But she is part of a family that wants to worship and celebrate together.

At JRC, it was simple. We brought her to services meant for everyone, regardless of differences. All were truly welcome. If she focused on her phone or sat when she was supposed to stand or drank water during the Yom Kippur fast, no one cared. Perhaps it was the feeling of belonging plus her love for all of the music in the service that made her comfortable. She started following the service in the prayer book, and then came her big ask. She wanted to have a Bat Mitzvah like her little sister.

Turns out, if one is flexible and accommodating, technically all she had to do was to be called to the bimah to recite the blessings before and after the Torah reading. She practiced those blessings but we had no idea if she would recite them in front of a congregation. To our amazement, she did, but she did much more. Rabbi Weiss and Cantor Howard Friedland respectfully asked her if she wanted to carry a Torah. She did. She danced with joy as she proudly carried hers next to her sister. Each time there was an opportunity to participate, they asked if she wanted to try it.  Would she let her grandfather wrap her in a tallit (prayer shawl)? She did. Did she want to come up so her parents could tell her how proud they were of her. She did. Would she like to join her little sister on the bimah to receive the priestly benediction? Yes, please.

After so many years of trying to find ways to include my granddaughter in religious life, in the end the answer was simple. Just open the door, invite her in, and ask how can we help you be part of our caring community.

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