You never know what you’re going to get with Jared. Some days he barely utters a peep as he chews on a straw. Other days, Jared has no interest in sitting with his parents or, for that matter, sitting at all. On this particular day, Jared was on the move. Despite his contorted muscles, he was determined to make a move toward the bimah. His father tried to redirect him, perhaps for a stroll outside of the chapel where our service is held. Jared, however, got louder with his guttural outcries and determination to storm the bimah. Somewhere between the Amidah and the Torah service, with my encouragement, Jared and his father approached the ark. He was now completely agitated; loud snorts and flailing arms. He was on a mission. With the service continuing around us, I opened the doors of the ark. Jared approached the Torah and reached out to touch it. As his hand felt the velvet cover, he just. . .relaxed. His body and breathing calmed and he turned to rejoin the congregation and to participate in the remainder of the service from the pew. I am sure that God heard Jared’s prayer.
These are the “God moments” that we are privileged to witness at our monthly Simchat Shabbat services. We developed this service six years ago along with the Council for Jews with Special Needs to provide a service for mostly adults between the ages of 25 – 40. The service is a true Shabbat experience complete with Torah reading, singing, prayer and Kiddush. We developed a siddur that is written at a third grade reading level, but is not a children’s prayer book. Our clergy graciously volunteers their time to lead these services. Although Simchat Shabbat is open to everyone, it is typically attended by those who have aged out of religious school programs offered by their home congregations. Many of the participants’ family members retell stories of being asked to leave synagogue services over the years because their son or daughter was “disrupting others.” We have only one rule at our service: No shushing!
What started as a daunting project has turned into one of the most fulfilling things that I do as a Jewish Educator. What I have learned is that we sometimes find God in unexpected places and through our interactions with each other. I have learned that off-key singing and loud eruptive noises can be joyful and beautiful and holy. But mostly, I have learned that God hears all prayers, even those that cannot be understood by the human ear. Just ask Jared.
Stacy Rosenthal is the Director of the Mark Haberkorn Religious School at Congregation Beth Israel in Scottsdale, Arizona. in 2007, Stacy collaborated with the Council for Jews with Special Needs to create Simchat Shabbat, an inclusive monthly Shabbat service that is open to Jews of all ages and abilities. She and her husband, Greg, are the proud parents of Alex, Benjamin and Annie.