First Person: Finding A Spot at Passover, Shabbat and Always


A mother and her autistic son celebrate Jewish holidays with Celebrations!, a family education inclusion program at Ohev Shalom.


As the mother of a 9-year-old son with autism, inclusion is an important value to me.

Which is why I was so excited to see my son Adam engaged with Jewish music, puppets and other children, during a recent special needs Passover event at Ohev Shalom of Bucks County in Richboro.

Rearing a child or teenager can be daunting, but when your child is on the autism spectrum or has other special needs, the challenges for the family can be even more overwhelming.

There are many places we go where people point, whisper and make disparaging remarks about my son’s quirks or childish behavior. When Adam and I are excluded from play dates, birthday parties, and many other community and school activities, it makes me want to first cry and then to scream!

So when a friend called last year to tell me about Celebrations!, a family education inclusion program at Ohev Shalom and several other local synagogues, I knew that Adam and I had to pursue this.

During the past two years, Adam and I have celebrated Passover, Simchat Torah, Cha­nukah and Shabbat with the families who meet monthly at Ohev Shalom from September to June. Other programs include Purim and Tu B’Shevat.

The first time we walked into the classroom, I was overtaken with emotion. There was a rabbi playing her guitar, singing songs and blessings. There were puppets, crafts and other fun-filled activities that kept my son both engaged and entertained.

During a Passover program held on March 21, my son was delighted when, during the section about the plagues, a dozen plush “frogs” were tossed around the room. To my delight, he tried to recite the motzi before eating his piece of matzah, and when he didn’t know the words to some of the songs and blessings, he began to hum along.

Cantor Paul Frimark was interacting with the teen and adult volunteers, talking to parents and children. For the first time in his young life, I could see that my son was finding a supportive spiritual home where he was accepted and welcome.

The Celebrations! program first began in the area in 2010 at Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia. It was initiated by Gab­rielle Kaplan-Mayer, a Jewish educator and mom of a son who has autism, and Rabbi Michelle Greenfield of Mishkan.

 Kaplan-Mayer, the director of Whole Community Inclusion at the Jewish Learning Venture, where she creates community activities that are accessible to all families, including those with special needs, wanted to expose her son to Jewish holidays, Jewish music and family-oriented activities. Two years later, Kaplan-Mayer and  Greenfield received a $20,000 grant from the Covenant Foundation in New York to develop a curriculum for a supportive special needs family program in synagogues.

In addition to Mishkan Shalom and Ohev Shalom, three additional congregations completed a training program, purchased the curriculum and established Celebrations! in their own communities: Old York Road Temple Beth-Am in Abington, Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen and Beth El in Sudbury, Pa. Currently, Celebrations! is still operating at four of the five venues — the OYRTB-A program ended, but the synagogue is pursuing other inclusion efforts, according to officials there.

Kaplan-Mayer said the curriculum and training are available to every synagogue in the country to purchase and begin a special needs inclusion program. She said there has been initial interest from several other states, but none has yet started an actual program.

During these programs, while the children work on their holiday-themed crafts — at the March 21 event, it was a handmade seder plate — with their “teen buddies,” the parents slip out into the nearby library for an informal support group led by a social worker. There we talk about how to get more services at home and school, red tape, new speech language apps, and other topics in hopes of helping one another through the difficulties of special needs parenting.

Before Celebrations!, the last time I took Adam to a synagogue, I was embarrassed because he was being disruptive and I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable. Knowing the demands of sitting and keeping quiet are not currently possible for Adam, I would choose to not attend services rather than risk judgment or worry we would be asked to leave.

The Inclusion B’Kavod Committee at Ohev Shalom, which oversees the Celebrations! program, follows the concept of kavod, Hebrew for honor and respect, and states as its purpose “kindness, acceptance, visibility, opportunity and dignity — for all.”  These are values which are sorely missing in so many places that my son and I go.

At Ohev Shalom, Celebrations! is open to children ages 4 to 18 who have a variety of learning issues or needs. All children are welcome regardless of any physical, speech, sensory, cognitive and behavioral issues. Adam and I are among the nine families involved, and it is quite a lively group. At Mishkan Sha­lom, the ages range from infants to young adults, and there are 12 families involved.

Friends ask me if Adam will become a Bar Mitzvah in four years, and I tell them that I honestly do not know. After all of his struggles with speech, it seems overwhelming to consider whether he could learn Hebrew or read from the Torah.

But Adam has an excellent memory and can currently recite 30-page children’s books after reading them a few times. I’m not sure if I would even be thinking about any of this if it wasn’t for Celebrations! and Adam’s exposure to his Jewish heritage.

More importantly, at Celebrations! Adam and I feel included in our Jewish customs, rituals and traditions, and we feel welcome in our new spiritual home.

During a recent Shabbat, as I was leaving the Celebrations! program, I asked the mom of an 8-year-old son with autism if they would like to come to our house one day after school so the boys could get to know one another better.

The mom looked at me with tears in her eyes. “Oh, yes,” she replied. “My son has never had a play date before. That would be wonderful!”

For information about Celebrations! at Ohev Shalom contact: or call Shelley Rubin at 215-399-7668. For information on the program at Mishkan Shalom, go to: or call: 215-508-0226.


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