Giving Families and Children Access to Jewish Experiences, No Matter What

Children at a Celebrations! event on Purim.

By the Covenant Foundation

Advocates of inclusion practices often speak of the need for holistic inclusion—looking at not just one aspect of a child’s disability, but rather, at the entire scope of factors affecting that child and his or her family.

For Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer, a holistic approach isn’t just pedagogy, it’s intrinsic to her life.

Gabby’s son George was diagnosed with Autism when he was three years old. At the time, Gabby was working part-time in Jewish education but it wasn’t until George began expressing a love for Judaism, that Gabby started considering how to integrate George’s needs with a Jewish education.

“When George was younger, he had really limited communication,” Gabby shared. “But I could feel how important Jewish connection was to him. He would light up when I played Jewish music in the car, and when we recited Shabbat blessings, it was clear how excited George was at hearing them.”

At the time, George was enrolled in an in-home daycare that wasn’t quite equipped to handle his needs, which included sensory processing therapy, play skills and language acquisition. Ultimately, Gabby and her family found a therapeutic program for George that was housed in a synagogue, Bright Horizons at Temple Beth-Hillel in Wynnewood. When her family moved one year later, they found another great classroom in a synagogue preschool Sinai at Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park.

“When we found Bright Horizons and then the Sinai class, we exhaled,” she said. “We thought, ‘These are communities that care about us,’” Gabby said. “We connected to the parents at both schools, and being in a Jewish environment that also provided a structured and supported classroom made a huge difference in George’s life and in ours.”

Through the preschool program, Gabby started attending Shabbat morning programming with George.

“Every Friday there was a Shabbat activity at the synagogue,” she shared. “I had the chance to see the class in action when George was the ‘Shabbat star,’ and I realized how important it was for us to have that experience together. One of George’s amazing teachers, Barbara Greenberg (z’l), created a structured Shabbat program that the kids looked forward to, with just the right amount of songs and ritual for kids with short attention spans. She found a way for everyone to have a role in the Shabbat circle, whether it was passing out kippot or holding up the kiddush cup.”

Gabby realized then that she could put her Jewish education experience in conversation with her experience as the parent of a child with a disability. George would be graduating from preschool and attending public school—but she imagined that within her synagogue, Mishkan Shalom, there was a place to create a monthly Shabbat experience for families like hers.

Together with Rabbi Michelle Greenfield and with help from Rabbi Margot Stein, she developed a monthly Shabbat experience that was designed to be sensory-friendly. Not too many loud noises, lots of space to move around, a place where children who were nonverbal could smell and taste and experience Shabbat, where those with intellectual and cognitive challenges could access Jewish experience by doing, where it was okay to leave and take a walk and come back because everyone in that space would understand.

That is how the Celebrations! Program at Mishkan Shalom was born. Established in 2010 as a family education program for children with special needs, their parents and their siblings, the program is designed for students who have cognitive, learning or developmental disorders, including but not limited to Autism spectrum disorders, cerebral palsy and Down Syndrome.

In 2011, Gabby applied and received a grant from The Covenant Foundation to expand the program.

“It was very affirming that someone outside our community recognized the worth and the potential of the program and that inspired me to think bigger,” she said, reflecting on that initial grant.

The Celebrations! program, where Gabby is the Project Coordinator, is still thriving at Mishkan Shalom and now, several other Philadelphia area synagogues offer the program as well. Mishkan Shalom also runs a program called Mitzvah Menshes, which is geared toward young adults, in the 18-30 age bracket, who have significant disabilities and a high level of support needs.

“It’s been so neat to see those same young adults who began in our Celebrations! programs back in 2010, still with us now, at our dinners, havdalah programs and participating in social action projects,” Gabby said.

For someone who doesn’t have a degree in Special Education, Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer’s training has truly been defined “on the job.” In 2011, while working part time for the Jewish Learning Venture in Philly on family engagement work, Rabbi Phil Warmflash approached Gabby and asked if she might be interested in working as an Inclusion Specialist for the Whole Community Inclusion program at the agency.

An initiative of JLV, Whole Community Inclusion serves all of greater Philadelphia, a five-county area, which includes over 50 synagogues. As Gabby explains, there are three distinct branches through which the staff aims to make change as it relates to disability inclusion: supporting professionals, direct service and support to parents and families and advocacy and awareness.

Along with a team of consultants and other professionals who provide trainings for staff, Gabby’s work is to integrate those three different columns.

“We’re focused on how to bring the task of inclusion onto the radar of clergy and educators in the Jewish community,” she said. “This might happen through a monthly gathering of agency professionals across the field where we get together and create community-based programming, or it could be via different trainings that we conduct for clergy, educators, and teachers, or via a webinar and seminar series for parents, and of course, by hosting sensory friendly events.”

Gabby emphasized the inclusion work JLV is doing is unique, because it synthesizes family engagement and congregational support with content in a truly specific way.

For example, on President’s Day, Gabby and her team will partner with jkidphilly to host a “Sensory-Friendly Access Day” tour of the National Museum of American Jewish History that’s completely geared toward kids who are have special sensory and cognitive needs. The tour will be short, and will take the group to specific spots in the museum where they can learn quietly, in a tactile and experiential way—a covered wagon they can sit in, quiet places where parents and kids can learn together, at their own pace.

“Our goal is to give families an experience that they might otherwise never have considered, given the particular needs of their child.”

A Bar Mitzvah is a particular Jewish experience that families of children with special needs might also consider impossible. But two years ago, Gabby’s son George celebrated his Bar Mitzvah, in a carefully curated and meaningful way. With the encouragement and support of their clergy and George’s teachers, Gabby and her family created a unique service that celebrated this rite of passage with music and visuals, in way that spoke to George.

Gabby and Rabbi Greenfield have since created a training for tutors and clergy about creating accommodations and modifications for B’nai Mitzvah services for young people of all abilities.

“Family is at the center of all of these experiences,” she said, reflecting on both George’s Bar Mitzvah but also on her inclusion work throughout greater Philadelphia. “We want families to feel connected to Judaism and supported by the community. We want them to feel like they can access Jewish education, and we work hard to make sure that happens.”

Cross-posted from the Covenant Foundation

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