Feeling included in a Shabbat service is a given for most worshippers, but not always for Jenn Seiff, whose son L.J., 6, suffers from cerebral palsy and has a difficult time making it through a regular service. Seiff describes the experience as “treading lightly on eggshells waiting for the inevitable cracks.”
Last Friday evening, as the Seiff family attended the first Shabbat specifically designed for members with special needs at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Seiff said her anxiety fell away. There, she and her family joined more than 65 other worshippers for the Inclusion Shabbat Dinner and Service that featured a visual Reform siddur, Mishkan T’filah (Dwelling Place for Prayer), on a large screen in the main sanctuary instead of prayer books.
Seiff said for the first time her family got a glimpse of what it is like for other temple families, and that she knows this is just the beginning of a more enjoyable and comfortable Shabbat service both for L.J. and her other son Nate, 9, who is neurotypical (doesn’t have any developmental or neurological disorder or disability).
“Our children’s inclusion depends on the rest of us drawing attention to it,” said Seiff. “It’s the beginning of more people who will understand. It’s the beginning of a richer, religious family time for our two boys. It was a truly special Shabbat, and we look forward to many, many more.”
The response from attendees was overwhelmingly positive, according to Anita Thornton, director of member services at TRS. She said the congregation recently formed an inclusion committee that worked with Cantor Rachel Rhodes and Rabbi Stephanie Bernstein on the event with the aim of creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere for disabled members and others who might feel excluded.
The interactive service included songs, prayer and dancing. Families with children of all abilities sat in pews or on the floor and experienced the Torah up close. TRS member Carin Lomax said the goal was to get her son to sit in the sanctuary for the entire 30-minute service without getting too overwhelmed or anxious and that by the end of the service he was holding up the yad (ritual pointer) and following along with the Torah reading.
“The program was easy to follow, fun and a very special way to celebrate Shabbat,” said Lomax. “My heart was so warm and full and it was a very special moment.”
Disability Inclusion Shabbat is being encouraged in the wider Reform movement. The Union for Reform Judaism website includes programming ideas such as teaching basic sign language and distributing copies of prayers in Braille.
“We are thrilled to initiate this new worship opportunity for our community. Every congregation is diverse, and our worship needs to open as many opportunities as possible for our members, young and old, to connect to our tradition, to God and to one another,” said TRS Senior Rabbi Amy Schwartzman.
“I am so excited that Rodef Shalom is going to start having inclusion Shabbat services,” said member Amy Kales. “My son is 11 years old and has severe cognitive delays resulting from a birth injury. As he gets older and older, the gap between him and his peers grows ever wider.
“It is so wonderful to have a place where we can go as a family, where he can be accepted as he is, where he can follow and understand, and where we can meet up with families who just get it.”
UPDATE: A correction was made to this story on Jan. 22 to reflect that neurotypical means that a child doesn’t have any developmental or neurological disorder or disability.