In February, my family and I attended the first “Shabbat L’Kulam,” at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, for families with children who have special needs, led by Cantor Sharon Knoller. We had a great time, and it was a very nice experience. There were musical instruments, and the kids were encouraged to get up, dance, sing, explore the space, and join in prayer. We have continued to attend because it offers a safe place for parents who might otherwise be reluctant to bring their children to services, without the worries of distracting other congregants.
Last month we also attended the synagogue’s Purim Carnival. Continuing their pioneering efforts to reach out to the special needs community, they opened their doors one hour earlier for families with children with special needs, so that the noise level would be lower, and it would be less crowded. The rest of the community respected this time frame, and no one tried to “crash” early. They had a room with a “bouncy house,” providing a support to meet the needs of children with sensory integration dysfunction. There were classrooms designated as a “Quiet Room” and a “Loud Room” so that kids with SI-related disorders would have a quiet place to relax and do arts and crafts if the noise of the carnival became too overwhelming. My family was accompanied by my friend and Beth Shalom congregant Heather Sorkin and her two daughters, who served as “shadows” for both of my kids, which made the experience that much easier for me as a parent.
I applaud Beth Shalom’s continued efforts to provide inclusive programming for me and my family, including my son who is diagnosed with autism. Now we know we have a synagogue community where we feel very welcomed. In my opinion, when it comes to families with children who have special needs, it is very simple: a synagogue can either close the door, or open it. When the door is closed, that family who is trying to raise their children as Jews may be lost. When the door is opened, that same family will become engaged in the community. Temple Beth Shalom clearly has chosen to open that door. They are trying hard to accommodate families with special needs, giving them a point of entry into Jewish life. Kol hakavod!