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Include, don't ignore those with special needs in High Holy Days

Posted September 27, 2019 in Articles

Author: Cleveland Jewish News

It’s the time of year when synagogues are packed, services are long, microphone systems are turned up and the pressure is on to act appropriately, dress up and be on your bets behavior.

Little about the High Holy Days feels – or is – routine to any child.

Each of the demands of the season can pose challenges for children who have heightened sensitivity or sensory processing disorder.

Yet, the High Holy Days can also pose opportunities for children with these and other exceptionalities to attain closeness, enjoy family time, participate and contribute to the larger community.

Preparing children who may find a change in routine challenging is a critical part of helping make the days easier.

Rena Wertheim, director of programs at Friendship Circle of Cleveland in Pepper Pike, which pairs teens with children with special needs, suggests using social stories to prepare a child for the High Holy Days. This might include both photographs and words to present a narrative of what a child can expect.

“For Rosh Hashanah, you would include a picture of the person blowing the shofar,” she said. “It might sound loud. And we stand to hear the shofar.”

Wertheim said parents can use that same method to prepare children to be ready for company.

“You can also use that same kind of tool 'we’re hosting a large dinner,'” she suggested writing. “These are the people who are going to be there. We are going to have a round challah, not a braided challah. We’ll say the motzi. We’ll say Birkat Hamazon. I can be excused between courses to read a book. I can ask questions to the guests about where they go to shul. You can prompt a whole back and forth about what the child can expect from what is different from their routine.”

Doing something as simple as reading picture books about the holidays can also help, she said.

Amy Pincus, family support specialist principal of kulanu total inclusion Jewish education program at Friendship Circle, said simply including a child in the preparation can help him or her form positive associations to the season, regardless of their challenges or exceptionalities.

Such examples include the following: “The things that we do that that touch our senses, cooking, … making challah, making apple cake, smelling the aroma of things that are baking in the oven,” she said.

In addition, she recommends preparing children by listening to the music of the season.

“Music is one of those universal things,” she said.

In preparing to go to synagogue, she recommends bringing picture books, large print books, noise-canceling headphones, and an English mahzor.

Ilana Hoffer Skoff, executive director and co-founder of Milestones Autism Resources in Warrensville Heights, said an important step for families is to think about priorities ahead of the holidays and which activities are most important for their family to take part in.

“Say the phrases,” she said. “Shana tovah.”

In addition, she said, giving a child a task – passing out books at a children’s service or helping to set or clear the table – can offer a way for the child to participate and a way for them to move.

Since spaces may be unfamiliar to children, she recommends offering a child the opportunity to view the sanctuary or the space where the children’s service is being held.

“Get them used to the idea and talking about it in advance, so that when it’s the actual day, it’s more familiar to them,” she said.

While services may present challenges to many children with sensory issues, there is one during the High Holy Days that may appeal to them: Tashlich.

Throwing the bread upon the water – a ceremonial shedding of the past year’s sins – might provide an engaging moment in the season.

“Outdoors, things don’t echo in the same way. When you’re outdoors, you’re not impacted in the same way even if you’re in a crowd,” said Joanie Calem, education director of Kehilat Sukkat Shalom in the Clintonville neighborhood of Columbus. “There’s space. You’re allowed to be throwing things. You’re allowed to just be a person outdoors. The societal expectation is different. Tashlich is just a wonderful, wonderful outlet.”

She said congregants can help families by creating welcoming and inclusive spaces.

“If we are as a community wishing to be more inclusive,” said Calem, whose son is autistic, “we have to start with being less judgmental.”

That includes how congregants approach children and their families when they are engaging in distracting behavior in the sanctuary.

“Speak to that person kindly about it,” she said. A smile, she said, can go a long way. “As the parent in that situation, you’re often dealing with shame, embarrassment. You want people to be inclusive. You’re not always thinking clearly about a win-win situation. If a person is a bystander, (it is helpful) to be able to say, ‘Is he or she ok? Is there any way I can help?’ But only if you mean it.”

Calem allowed that extending such gestures can be difficult, particularly when annoyed.

“Inclusion is messy,” she said. “Trying to include someone who has a different need than yours is not necessarily simple and it’s not necessarily going to be really efficient. It’s trial and error.”

Original Article: https://www.clevelandjewishnews.com/features/holidays/rosh_hashanah/high-holy-days-can-offer-learning-opportunities-for-children-with/article_c8323f99-1316-54c8-8352-d2e9ff66dbf8.html

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