Creating Special Needs Worship Services at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in NYC

by Annette Powers
URJ Communications Manager


CongregationRodeph Sholom is one of 20 congregations awarded a URJ IncubatorGrant for their SpecialNeeds Worship Services, designed to provide families and children with specialneeds the opportunity to worship together in an accessible, inclusive, andsensitive environment.  Created in conjunction with a consultant from Music forAutism, this congregation’s experience will be a guide to inclusive worship forcongregations across the Movement. 

Last week I sat down with Congregation Rodeph Sholom’sSenior Rabbi Robert N. Levine, Co-Chair of the Special Needs Committee GinaLevine and Membership Coordinator Nadine Kochavi to discuss this groundbreakinginitiative.

AP: Congratulationson winning the URJ Incubator Grant! How did this initiative comeabout?

GL: Thank you! TheSpecial Needs Worship Services initiative partly grew out of our CongregationBased Community Organizing conversations,during which some congregants who have family members with special needsexpressed the need for a sensitive worship environment for their family. Thereare so many families that have these issues and it can be hard for them tointegrate into the larger community

NK: The initiativealso came of out of our Inclusion and Outreach Committee, which looks at issuesfacing our congregation and the needs of our diverse membership. We realized thenecessity of offering more opportunities to families with special needs.

AP: What are the Special Needs Worship Services like?

RL: We host the Special Needs Worship Services on Shabbat and incorporate elements of upcoming holidays.  So far, we have plans for four per year and our hope is that little by little, elements of the service will become familiar.

One of the things we realized is that in a number of cases, families have never found a comfortable setting to fulfill their spiritual needs. So we created a service which has repetitive elements in it.  Every time they come, they will see, hear and touch the Torah and hear certain prayers like the Sh’ma. By working with a consultant from Music for Autism, we learn what kind of sound is tolerable and what isn’t and how to best communicate with those with special needs.

GL: We are working to build trust at the core. The thing we want to continue and have more of is the interactive element – to allow participants to get up, dance, touch the torah, maybe do an art project. There is a pictorial schedule with an arrow that is moved along with the service. We also send everyone a “social story,” ahead of time. Social stories are common tools used with those on autism spectrum. The social story and pictorial schedule give participants an idea about what is coming so they know what to expect and are ready to embrace the experience.  Sign Language interpreters are there to assist in guiding attendees through the service.

NK: We make sure to send the social story out ahead of time to those who RSVP. We also post it on the website so that it’s accessible.  

GL: Another important aspect of these services is that they are in a safe, respectful and comfortable environment where people do not feel self conscious. We also provide a quiet room that is nearby for attendees who feel the need for one; if they like they can take a short break and return to the service when they are ready.

AP: What segments of the Jewish population do you expect to see at these services? Are they just for children, or open to all?

GL: The services are open to all ages and both members and non-members.  We worked on the philosophy of “if you build it they will come.” We didn’t put process and needs assessment before building it, so we didn’t limit ourselves to certain age groups or specific types of special needs. We try to accommodate anyone who is interested and wants to worship.

RL: We have realized that if we hold a service on a regular basis, we will have no problem filling seats.  Our suspicion is that there is a shortage of spiritual programs for people with special needs in a city with this sized Jewish population.  

AP: Do you ask participants for feedback so you can improve your services for the next time?

GL: Yes, we ask participants to fill out an online survey and take feedback seriously.  We see what we are doing right and how we can do better – that’s why the URJ Grant is so important… we are incubating and need to find out what our needs are and how to improve our services.  

AP: How will the $5,000 grant be spent?

NK: We will use the money to continue to support our Special Needs Worship Services. Right now, we have services for Purim, Pesach, Rosh Hashanah and Chanukah planned.  Funds from the grant is reserved for purchasing of food, instruments, supplies, advertising and Sign Language interpreters We will also use the money for our wonderful consultant, Robert Accordino, cofounder of Music for Autism.  

AP: Do people come to these services from outside the Reform Movement?

NK: Yes, we had people from all denominations and from throughout the greater New York area.

GL: We hope to make these as accessible as possible to all those who want to come. We are trying to be helpful and create a model for others.

RL: We partly developed the idea because we have grown up with families who have been so in need of these services.  For all the resources in the Jewish community, it’s unacceptable that there aren’t more opportunities for the special needs community when it comes to worship.  

AP: What do you hope will result from this initiative?

RL: It’s one thing to have separate services, but what we want to see is how will the larger community come to accept those with special needs, who don’t do things in conventional ways. Some people expect certain behavior and will be confronted by those that can’t adhere to the norms — kids that can’t stay quiet and come running through the sanctuary. How will that be different if people in the congregation know that child? Will that make a difference? This will now be THEIR child. These are not givens and this is not anything we as a community have fully accepted.

The way a congregation changes and grows is by knowing REAL people. What I’m hoping is that the congregation will come to realize that there are not “autism cases,” but  important members of our Jewish community. By getting to know them, I’m hoping congregants will be more accepting.  I’ve seen the community grow out of its comfort zone in the past and have faith it will happen again.

We have a history of educating Jewish children with special needs via our Religious School’s Steinman Center, a program that provides individual attention and one-on-one tutoring in Hebrew and other Jewish studies.  Despite the fact that we’ve been working with the this population for over ten years, I still think we’re barely rounding first base in terms of the challenges of what it means to be a synagogue to an even broader base of needs. We’ll be working to remain responsive to needs for a very long time.

AP: At this point, how have those with special needs integrated with the larger congregation?

GL: One of our goals is that those with special needs have opportunities to become leaders in our congregation and we’ve already seen that. Sadie is on the autism spectrum and is a volunteer at our special needs services.  She helps greet people and has enhanced the service beyond words. The hope is to empower everybody who wants to take a place of leadership in our services and to foster community.  It has also increased leadership in our larger community. So many people have stepped forward to be on the Special Needs committee. Some of them have never been on any of our synagogue committees before, but this effort really spoke to them.

Visit Congregation Rodeph Sholom’s Special Needs Worship Services page to learn more.

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