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Enrich High Holy Days by involving those with special needs

Posted September 05, 2018 in Articles

Author: Becky Raspe

As the holidays approach, many families are faced with making them comfortable and enjoyable for loved ones who have special needs.

Routine changes, like those that occur during the High Holy Days, can be upsetting for those with special needs. But according to Sara Ireland-Cooperman, director of Cleveland Yachad in Cleveland; Amy Pincus, principal at Kulanu: Inclusive Jewish Education Program and family support specialist at Friendship Circle of Cleveland in Pepper Pike; and Mia Buchwald Gelles, operations director, and Ilana Hoffer Skoff, executive director, both of Milestones Autism Resources in Warrensville Heights, keeping one informed about routine changes makes the holidays enjoyable for all.

“With all successful and positive holiday experiences, preparation is key especially when it comes to including our family members with disabilities or special needs,” Ireland-Cooperman said. “It is important to identify potential challenges in advance to be able to successfully address them.”

Ireland-Cooperman said long prayer services, meal changes, the sound of the shofar and the change of routine are some challenges parents should anticipate.

“Parents and family members will need to know the areas where their child may struggle and will need to plan accordingly,” she said.

Pincus said, “Parents/caregivers are encouraged to do this in the form of a social story that explains through pictures and perhaps minimal words, the chronology and con-tent of the events that will take place.”

Skoff noted other changes, like meeting new people, attending services in new environments as well as prayer book changes can stress out individuals with special needs.

“In order to prepare the child for something being difficult, families should drop by (their synagogue) in advance,” she said. “Create a personal schedule for the child. Let them know during the holidays they’ll see (unfamiliar) things. Let them see a schedule they can know and focus on from beginning to end.”

Gelles said it is important for individuals with special needs to feel included in a community.

“Take a step back and think about what we all get out of being involved in these activities,” she said. “Everyone wants to be part of a larger community. It is important for us to be engaged in our families and communities in meaningful ways. Sometimes, there is a breakdown for those with special needs because they have a hard time plugging in and being engaged. It is very powerful to build them in as they grow up like you would with any other child.”

Pincus said both special needs and neuro-typical children benefit from focusing on hands-on activities.

“These activities are experiential in nature and stimulate the senses,” she said. “These could include going out to an orchard and picking apples and upon returning home, involving everyone in baking for Rosh Hashanah with that fruit. Inclusion in helping to prepare other dishes for these special holiday meals is also a way for everyone to feel the excitement of bringing in the Jewish new year.”

Ireland-Cooperman said it’s important for families to play up the home piece of the celebration. She noted special needs individuals can feel isolated or overwhelmed at services.

“This means parents should include the individual in preparing the special symbolic foods for Rosh Hashanah night, like pouring the honey, baking and decorating the round challahs and cutting up the apples,” she said.

Including special needs individuals in High Holy Days also benefits the rest of the family.

“You learn compassion and you’re learning to put things into perspective that everyone has challenges,” Gelles said. “It’s important to explain that people have different needs and interests. When you give this information to other people, in a way, they are empowering them to be helpful.It gives people the tool to connect. Being engaged with a special needs individual is so fruitful, meaningful and empowering.”

Skoff said, “When you’re working with people who are challenged, you understand it and there is a tremendous satisfaction from helping them be successful. Everyone has different challenges. Though it is easier to see someone with special needs have challenges, working with special needs individuals sensitizes you to be more open and supportive of the entire community.”

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