At first glance, the group gathered in the library in Temple Oheb Shalom resembles any religious education class. This particular Saturday morning, the power is out at the synagogue. But the lamps hooked up to the backup generator are working, giving the small room a soft glow.
Beth El Cantor Karen Webber faces a group of 13 people, all families with young children. Webber sings, strums her guitar and asks questions to the kids.
On second glance, the group appears more casual than the average class — and even livelier. Kids call out their answers. Some kids wander out of the room, with a parent dutifully tailing behind. Other kids fidget, walk around and talk. Still others play with sensory toys and sit on cushions near the back of the room. Webber doesn’t appear to mind, and neither do the other parents or kids. Nobody is shushed or told to sit down.
This is Kol Echad, an inclusive Shabbat service for kids with special needs, their families and their friends.
“Often, parents are stressed out” bringing their child to religious services, says Webber, who leads every Kol Echad service.
“I know because I was one,” she says. “I have two young adults who have disabilities. They live in the D.C. area. One has autism and the other has ADHD.” When Webber’s kids were younger, she says, they “could sit through services … sometimes. My son who has autism could sit better than my daughter. My daughter had to roam.”
To further their religious education, Webber says: “I had to sort of make inroads myself. If I had this [service] when they were teens. it would have changed my life.”
The idea behind Kol Echad, developed last year after a conversation between Beth El’s director of education, Eyal Bor, and congregant Erica Hobby, whose 8-year-old son Jonathan has social and communication issues associated with autism.
Hobby remembers: “Beth El was facilitating a special needs service that was geared to families who had kids with special needs, learning differences and who responded well to different styles. They did it a few times over the course of the year, and we attended. We found it to be not only engaging and dynamic, but it was the first type of service that really reached Jonathan. He thoroughly enjoyed it, he was learning from it, he was fully engaged the whole time.”
In their prior experiences, “we had difficulty sitting through a service of any length,” Hobby says. “Literally, we’d get in the door and three minutes later he was like: ‘Can we go now? Is it almost over?’ I was very concerned that as a parent I was doing him a disservice, that we weren’t exposing him [to religion] and educating him Jewishly in a way I would like.”
Hobby says she was “keenly aware of all the families out there who must have similar challenges.”
That’s when Hobby started to see this challenge as an opportunity.
Having experienced Beth El’s accessibility programs, Hobby approached Bor about expanding and enhancing the ways the synagogue could make learning accessible.
“Beth El’s philosophy was always [rooted in] taking care of all learning styles,” says Bor, adding that a project such as Kol Echad would have been “too cumbersome” for an individual synagogue to run on its own. Hobby suggested “casting a wider net” in the community and Bor agreed.
“We knew this would be a very grassroots effort,” Hobby says. “We would have to develop this program together to figure out what this should look like, based on the needs … and the resources that exist, both financial and human.”
Hobby and Bor found six synagogues and two Associated agencies, the Macks Center for Jewish Education and Shemesh, to partner with them. With the committee, Bor says, they were able “to make it happen.”
In this, their pilot year, “the idea was to hold monthly Shabbat morning services that were short in length, and no longer than 45 minutes,” Hobby says. “These services would utilize a multisensory approach. There are tactile aspects, visual, and auditory — recognizing that we all learn very differently.”
“When people register [to attend], we ask them about how we can accommodate them physically, emotionally and from a religious perspective. We ask, ‘What will make you feel welcome and comfortable?’”
Webber, who has run five services now at the participating synagogues, says Kol Echad “has more free flow” than a traditional service. “There’s more asking and answering questions. There’s a lot of music. I try to present things in a way that’s a little more hands on.”
Webber says her duty to participants is “finding out what they need and helping them get there. I’m trying to increase the factors that would make kids successful and decrease factors that have them really squirming around, not very happy with things. If people get up that’s fine with me. It’s a different atmosphere.”
“The trick for me,” she says, “is to keep people, young and old, engaged.”
One time, Webber says, “we explored [a] prayer about going out of Egypt. We had the [kids] make themselves into pyramids, and then we had them cross the sea, with the parents waving blue silky fabric. They ended up on this green mat that was the promised land.”
“There’s a piece in the middle that’s always a curriculum piece. We got them ready for Purim last week — we had a ‘dress rehearsal.’ I also invite clergy from the synagogue to participate if they’d like, to welcome us to the space or perhaps to take over that curriculum piece or to do that with me,” Webber says.
To accompany the service, each participating synagogue gets a sensory kit, curated by the Macks Center for Jewish Education, which includes items such as fidget spinners, stress balls, cushions, a weighted blanket, noise cancelling headphones, light filters that temper fluorescent lights and books. Synagogues can employ the sensory kit “not just in this service but throughout the year, in all their other settings,” Hobby says.
There’s also a training component: “Everyone who will be hosting the services has been through a training CJE and Shemesh put together. It talks about sensitivity for kids with special needs and what to be aware of when programming for all learning styles,” Hobby says. Rachel Turniansky, CJE’s Special Needs Programming Coordinator, offers the training, “B’More Inclusive,” to all synagogues, but says it’s required for every synagogue that participates in Kol Echad.
And now, after all this community effort, Hobby says the program has been growing. “We have had services where we had a handful of families and services where there were 30 people in the room.”
Her greatest satisfaction has been “seeing a mix of new people learning about it and coming and seeing those who are returning because they’re feeling good about having this space.”
Hobby also sees this program uniting her religious community. “The beauty of this is that we have reform, conservative and orthodox participants. People can move from shul to shul with this service” and meet a broader range of community members.
Others see this program as an important community-builder, too. “We as educators should do more now than ever to reach out,” Bor says. “I believe that if we make more community-wide efforts there will be many, many saved souls in Judaism [who] will feel proud to be part of the process of … [cultural] life-cycle events.”
At Temple Oheb Shalom, Rachel Didovicher readies her son Alex to leave for the Kiddush after the service. Alex says he enjoyed this morning’s service, which focused on questions about God, and featured a book about a princess looking for God. Alex says he liked the prayer book “and songs” best.
“He likes routines,” Didovicher says. “He comes and there’s always the same book he reads. There’s a little variation, depending on the theme that week.”
She believes Kol Echad fills an important role for families like hers. “For special needs families,” she says, “community is even more important. It’s another level of community we’re able to access.”
Webber agrees. “Children need to have an inner life, and it’s good for them to have a spiritual life,” she says. “Parents and kids have found that with us.” BC
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