Ten Ways to Make Your Family Seder Accessible for All Learners

Passover is multi-sensory, MatanThe Purim costumes are hardly off our children. The smell of cotton candy and popcorn lingers in the air. We can still hear the melodies of favorite songs used in schpiel parodies. And it might be weeks until we clean up the last of the hamantashen crumbs. And yet, within days of Purim it is time to be thinking ahead to Passover. As with all things that make inclusion successful, an inclusive Passover seder requires planning and intention. Here are some wonderful ideas to get you started.

Passover is an ideal holiday to explore multi-sensory ways of reaching every type of learner at your seder. You can incorporate activities that engage participants not only through visual and auditory information, but also through touch, taste, and smell. Whether your goal is to keep everyone’s attention, help individuals understand the story or encourage participation from every guest, below are ten of our favorite ways to keep the seder interesting, active and fun!

1. Use a Seder Tracker to maximize children’s attention. In the Matan Seder Tracker, children add each step of the seder as it is completed.

2. Kadesh: Give your child very small cups so that they can drink a full cup at each of the 4 times during the seder.  If they don’t like grape juice, don’t worry. You can fill their cups with water so that they can participate in drinking from their cups 4 times.

3. Urchatz: Have your guests share a way they prepared for Passover and do not forget to include the kids! They can share something they did at Hebrew School or if they searched for crumbs in their house, they can share the funniest place they found something. This is a good activity when people are busy washing their hands.

4. Karpas: Have your child make the salt water. They can do this during the beginning of the seder or before it starts. During the seder, they can keep adding more salt as an experiment – how much salt do they need to make something float?

5. Maggid: Telling the story of Passover is typically the longest part of the seder. Consider setting up stations in your home. You could have a pyramid station where there are legos, Lincoln logs and anything else they could use to build pyramids and a dress-up station with towels and bathrobes so that they might pretend to be Pharoah or the slaves. Stations allow children and other participants an opportunity to get up and move rather than sit through the whole seder, increasing their ability to attend during times when they must sit. You could make pyramids at the table, too. Provide sugar cubes or marshmallows and toothpicks and see how high they can make their pyramid.

pyramid for the seder, Matan6. Download Matan’s visual Ten Plagues so that everyone at the seder knows just how much G-d was helping the Jewish People to get out of Egypt!

7. Maror: Talk about things that are bitter in the world. Ask the kids (and adults!) to share something “bitter” they would like to fix in the world.

8. Barech: Blessings after the meal – a great time to have your kids tell you something they are thankful for.

9. The song “Who Knows One” is very popular at many Passover Seders, but for some kids it can be difficult to keep up and remember which number goes with what. Print Matan’s visual version “Who Knows One” so that everyone at your seder can have fun participating!

10. Play Passover Seder Bingo! A favorite of children and adults alike, give a bingo board and stickers to every person at your seder. When they hear each part of the seder, they find it on their board and put a sticker on it. When the whole card is filled up, the seder is over!

Remember, a seder is only as successful as the youngest participant’s ability to engage and find meaning. Successful inclusion requires planning. Whatever elements you decide to incorporate this year, have fun!

Written by Meredith Polsky of Matan, a version of this post originally appeared on the New York Jewish Week’s The New Normal in April, 2014

Good Will Hunter

Written by Dori Frumin Kirshner, Matan’s Executive Director Hunter bar mitzvah autism MatanAnother invitation to a bar mitzvah arrived in our mailbox. I envisioned a typical service followed by the usual photo montage and candle-lighting ceremony with rhyming stanzas.

But when I opened the envelope and began to read, I realized this was not just any bar mitzvah invitation. This was an invitation to celebrate the bar mitzvah of Hunter, a 13 year old boy with Autism. So, what would make this bar mitzvah different from all others?

The invite was laid out differently. It was clear that this service would be fashioned for Hunter, so he could connect with our tradition in a way that resonated with him.

The invitation noted that this Autism-Friendly Bar Mitzvah Service (and subsequent celebration) would:

  • Encourage kids to play or read quietly
  • Allow snacks and drinks in the pews
  • Encourage a free-flow for guests to come and go as shpilkes set in
  • Expect kids and parents to sit together
  • Entail a shorter service
  • Offer tons of activities for families to enjoy

Even the usual explanation of the bar mitzvah was customized: “bar mitzvah, translated as ‘Son of Commandments,’ is usually held when a boy is 13 years old and signifies the beginning of Jewish adulthood. In this case, we celebrate all of Hunter’s progress and successes to date, and begin to look forward to what will come next.”

When the first words of the service were uttered, the tears began to flow. When I looked around me, I saw I was in good company. The Rabbi called everyone together and set the stage for the experience about to take place. He said:

“Today we are all here to wish Hunter a ‘Happy Bar Mitzvah.’ To a lot of people, happiness is complicated. To Hunter, it is the simple things that make him happy. He loves to splash around in the pool on a hot summer day, the feel of the waves in the ocean as they break upon him, the taste of pizza, playing on his computer, helping out at the animal shelter. When he plays games, he doesn’t care if he wins or loses … he just loves to play. Hunter has the greatest laugh. It is a whole-hearted belly laugh. It makes YOU want to laugh. At the very least, it makes you smile. It serves as a reminder to all of us that happiness should not be complicated. Happiness is simply anything that you love. And we all love Hunter.”

The structure of the Amidah, which I have said countless times, penetrated my soul at this service:

“We praise You, O God, for the generations that have come before us; for the Abrahams and Sarahs and Isaacs and Rebeccas, and Jacobs and Rachels and Leahs, for the Hunters too. Through us all you reveal your love of Torah. Through us all, the generations flow, from parent to child. Israel lives, and our people live.”

The passage included all of God’s creations, not just the ones for whom legends are told. Everyone is worthy of a story, a history, a bar mitzvah. These prayers recognized and celebrated that notion. These prayers made me feel more connected to my religion than I can ever remember.

sraw the bulls-eye around the child Dori Frumin KirshnerAt most b’nai mitzvah services I have attended, the target has been drawn and the child “performed,” aiming for the center of that bulls-eye with varying degrees of success. Hunter’s bar mitzvah was an example of the bulls-eye being drawn around the child – and it fit so much better.

In Jewish education, we tend to place inordinate effort on attempting to fit students into “the box” of what a bar or bat mitzvah, educational success or social engagement should look like. If we are all different, shouldn’t the boxes be less uniform and more adjustable to individual needs and strengths? Isn’t that the purpose of invoking the different names of our ancestry? Demonstrating that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah and Hunter…and you and I, all connect differently? I never experienced this in a more profound way than while praying at Hunter’s bar mitzvah. I went to the bar mitzvah expecting to be moved, and I ended up transformed.

At the end of the service, we read…

Hunter taught us: The journey can be just as exciting as the destination…He has taught us that although people live different lives, that does not mean that they all can not have wonderful lives.”

That is the lesson that filled my heart and my plate this Thanksgiving weekend.

For anyone interested in accessing Hunter’s service booklet as a resource, we are proud to share it here: Hunter Elkins Cong version 9.3.14

What Constitutes Success?

Written by Jason Lieberman, board member of Matan.

What Constitutes Success?With JDAM 2014 in the books, I thought I’d reflect on what I, a member of the Jewish community with a disability, and witness to the evolution of the month, views as JDAM success.

Professor Paul C Light, from the Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, suggests the true goal of non-profits is to make its mission obsolete. I always believed long-term, JDAM should strive for a similar goal. However, on a shorter-term basis my view of JDAM success has changed over time.

The first step to building a truly integrated or inclusive Jewish community is breaking down the barrier separating people with disabilities and their families from the “mainstream world,” which as a whole ignored us or saw our families and us as nothing more than a burden. Therefore, in the beginning, acknowledgement in a synagogue’s bulletin announcements, from the pulpit, or in the local Jewish paper was a success.

Acknowledgement, though only breaks the ice.  So nine years after the launch of the first national infinitive[1], I no longer believe acknowledgment constitutes success. To succeed now, JDAM must be a catalyst to a time when the inclusion of people with disabilities doesn’t need a specially dedicated month, but is simply normal operating procedure. A successful JDAM, therefore, requires programs with transformative potential. It must ignite, some action advancing opportunities within the community for people with disabilities.  That is, effectiveness requires JDAM’s benefits extend beyond March 1st. Thus locally, we shouldn’t measure JDAM’s success by the number of programs or attendance at those programs, but on whether the community is further on its journey toward inclusiveness and integration on March 1st than it was on February 1st, and further in 2015 than 2014.

Was your JDAM successful?

[1] Yachad and the OU launched North American Inclusion Month (NAIM) in October of 2005 and continue to use that name. The broader community rebranded it JDAM and moved it to February in 2009.

After Raising a Son with Severe Autism, I have Redefined “Normal”

As part of our month-long series with Kveller during Jewish Disability Awareness Month, Elaine Hall writes about raising a son with severe autism and carving a space for him in the Jewish community.

Our tradition dictates: “Be fruitful and multiply.” I couldn’t do either. Each year at Rosh Hashanah, where we read Hannah’s story of her inability to give birth, I cried Hannah’s tears. I prayed, “If you give me a child, I will give him back to you, to serve Elaine Hallyou all his days.” My prayer was finally answered when I adopted my son from an orphanage in Russia.

I had been raised in a religious ”Conservadox” family in a non-Jewish area of Southern Maryland and had felt different all my life. Now, I just wanted normal. I looked forward to returning to LA and beginning a normal life: car pool, little league, Tot Shabbat. On a blissful flight home across many continents, I had no idea what lay ahead of us.

Reality set in quickly. We discovered that our toddler son had liver toxicity, parasites, malnutrition, and he was spiking fevers of 105. He stared at his hands for hours at a time, spun around in circles, opened/closed and banged cabinet doors, made no eye contact, couldn’t speak, tantrumed for hours, and didn’t sleep.

Once we got him physically healthy, and shortly after his circumcision and conversion with the Beit Din and Mikveh, we received the diagnosis: Severe Autism. (Read more…)

A Path to Inclusion

Gena with her mother and grandmother. Courtesy of Gena Rosenzweig

Gena with her mother and grandmother.
Courtesy of Gena Rosenzweig

Gena Rosenzweig is a special education teacher by trade, working for the past 4 years in the area of Inclusion in the Jewish supplemental schools.  She currently lives in the Atlanta, GA area.

Growing up a child of Deaf adults in Lakewood, New Jersey, I was introduced to worlds of silence and noise.  My family, to ensure that I had plenty of auditory input, enrolled me in school at a very young age, starting my education at a Greek Orthodox Church preschool.  It wasn’t until I was 4 that I went to Lakewood Hebrew Day School (LHDS), which, ironically, was the same school my mom was kicked out of because the other mothers didn’t want their children “to catch the deafness”.

My family members were all Jewish but my aunt had converted from Roman Catholicism so we celebrated Rosh Hashanah, Passover (where I got an Easter Basket), Thanksgiving and Christmas. We had an electric menorah for Chanukah, but these were our four major holiday celebrations.  My only connection to the Jewish world was the fact that I went to school at an Orthodox Hebrew school.  I went to our family shul, but just to hang out with my friends, and had a Bat Mitzvah party because that was the cool thing to do.   My family was never truly connected to Judaism. It wasn’t until I was older and had a conversation with my mom and grandmother that I realized why.

“Why would I go somewhere that I don’t understand the language and they won’t provide an interpreter?”  This was my mom’s response, and it made perfect sense.   Our community wasn’t very welcoming so why should my parents bother?  My grandmother had her own set of reasons. When both her children were born with disabilities (my mom and uncle both have Usher’s Syndrome and my uncle was also diagnosed with mental retardation), she and my grandfather sought guidance from the head Rabbi in New York.   His response:  “Your children are this way because you are not Shomer Shabbos (observant of the Sabbath laws).” This began my grandparents’ long journey of “religion-hopping” and it wasn’t until I came along and entered LHDS that they started moving back towards the Jewish world.  But it was a very slow move.

My own connection to Judaism didn’t really happen until I was in college.  I did a work study stint at Hillel, then worked at the JCC , met some amazing people and eventually joined the staff at Temple Judea in Coral Gables, FL.   Over the years, I became more and more connected to my religion and culture through the people I met along the way. When I joined the religious school staff at Temple Judea, I was working as a secular special education teacher. The Education Director at Temple Judea recognized the need for inclusion within the religious school, and I was proud to help make that happen. As I think about my mom I can’t imagine a better, or more important, path for me.

I now live in Atlanta and am the Jewish Supplementary Educational Inclusion Coordinator at Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. Here, I can help make sure that all children with special needs and their families can form meaningful connections to their Jewish roots in a welcoming environment. After all, our collective Jewish future depends on it.