The Children Left Out of Judaism

A Lack of Inclusion for Those With Special Needs

More Than Purim: The fun, chaotic holiday should not be the only way special needs children can participate in Jewish life.
Getty Images
More Than Purim: The fun, chaotic holiday should not be the only way special needs children can participate in Jewish life.

By Laurie Levy

Published March 02, 2014, issue of March 07, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

My grandchild with special needs failed Sunday school. Actually, to be accurate, Sunday school failed her. Because the teacher had no idea how to include her in the class, even after her mother shared some ideas, she spent most of her time coloring with a teen volunteer.

She was “welcome,” but only in the sense that she could physically be present as long as she didn’t disrupt too much. Needless to say, not much religious learning happened for her in that class. In fact, the only positive Jewish experience for her that year was the Purim carnival where she was able to participate in the happy chaos like any other child.

As her grandparent, I often wonder how families of children with special needs can find a place in our religious communities. Does the importance of formal prayer and following religious customs precisely trump the importance of making our religious institutions truly accessible? They shouldn’t. And yet sadly, in too many instances, it appears they do.

I do understand that religious communities have members with a wide variety of needs that should be respected. Like crying babies, children who make noises, talk out of turn, or can’t sit still disrupt those who come to traditional services for prayer and contemplation. But what about programming specifically designed for children?

I met with a Reform rabbi to ask her why she thought there were so few children with visible special needs in shul. She shared with me that most synagogues would say, “All are welcome,” and mean it with good intentions. But she went on to say that many synagogues did not have a deep understanding of what it would take to make their congregations truly welcoming to the LGBT, interracial, interfaith and special needs communities, though they wished they knew how.

All religious institutions struggle with this issue. A friend with a child on the autistic spectrum had been active in her liberal Baptist church until she felt compelled to stop going because the Sunday school was unable to meet his needs. When she was asked to be in the class with him, preventing her from attending adult services with her husband, she decided to leave the church.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.