There Are No Outsiders
by Sari Biddelman
As a nursery school student at the Rodeph Sholom School, I was asked to define community. I drew a self-portrait in the center of a circle surrounded by my family and closest friends. It was not until middle school when I was asked to consider this term again, that I reflected on what my community means to me and what I can do for it. I have always felt a connection with my synagogue, Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City, and made close friends there as I became a bat mitzvah, participated in mitzvah projects, and celebrated happy occasions. I have also been counseled through difficult times. Now, as a young adult woman, my commitment has been significantly strengthened through my involvement in our synagogue’s Special Needs Worship Services. This initiative, launched in 2010 with the help of a URJ Incubator Grant, is an effort I’m proud to be a part of. The URJ grant has aided our committee’s expansion so we can continue to reach people in a way that impacts their sense of community.
As a special education teacher, my greatest hope is for my students to engage in as many opportunities as possible and to do so with the utmost comfort and pride. With Rodeph Sholom’s inclusive services, both members and non-members are afforded spiritually nurturing opportunities. Jews with disabilities who have never before been able to comfortably participate in a worship experience can now do so in a welcoming and sensitive environment.
While these holiday services were initiated to allow people with special needs and their families to celebrate Jewish holidays in an accessible, non-judgmental atmosphere, I am not sure the leaders of our committee fully anticipated the effect these extraordinary services would have on volunteers like myself or other congregants who are able to easily attend more traditional services within the temple. It was not until my involvement on the Special Needs Committee, and specifically participating in the services, that I understood exactly what kind of exceptional community Rodeph Sholom is and how grateful I am to be a part of it. Witnessing the impact of these services on families is truly moving. Everyone is involved in the services and is able to experience acceptance and open-mindedness, rather than mere tolerance, in a way that adds to any sermon, no matter how well-expressed, simply by being ourselves as we celebrate each holiday.
During our first service, it was unclear how hands-on each volunteer should be. In our efforts to be sensitive to the needs of the worshippers, we roamed the room to ensure that everyone appeared comfortable and happy. After several services, our role became clearer. We were not outsiders welcoming others into a Special Needs Service, just as those with special needs were not outsiders to be monitored by us. Instead we are all members of the same community – all there to pray, understand, question, and engage in Judaism in whatever unique way possible for us. I felt this communal feeling most strongly when I was able to simply sit and not scan the room to see where I could offer my assistance.
My tendency during most holidays prior to attending special needs services has been to look around the sanctuary during sermons to see people’s reactions to the themes examined in each story. Often, people are reserved, perhaps discussing their reflections in the lobby once the service concluded. In observing reactions during one Special Needs service, I made eye contact with the 13-year-old girl sitting next to me who astutely recognized the poor behavior of the character in our rabbi’s allegory and reacted with a disappointed sneer. When our rabbi had completed the story with the moral, demonstrating the importance of using free will to do right over wrong, the same girl looked gratefully relieved and searched for eye contact again. I felt the same way about the character’s behavior – I knew he should not have done that either! With this eye contact and shared connection, we recognized we agreed with each other. Despite my desire to sit in my seat and hers to intermittently pace in the aisle, we both experienced the same pleasure of spiritual enrichment and connection. Neither one of us was the uncomfortable outsider.
As a teacher, I have now come full circle. I have asked my own students to consider their role in a community and the impact they have on the people they encounter on a daily basis, and I have participated in the same activity with them. One of my many communities is still Rodeph Sholom, now more so than ever as a result of my involvement in the Special Needs services. Never having been able to calmly sit without braiding the fringe on my father’s talis during High Holidays in order to help me best focus on what the rabbi is saying, I am now gratified to be able to empower others to find their comfortable place in Judaism and share their special gifts with our community.
Sari Biddelman is a member of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City, where she serves on the Special Needs Committee.