In 1981, Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l extensively outlined the extent of the obligation to educate a child with special needs. Rav Moshe explained that those with diminished mental capacities, who may not fully comprehend all things but nonetheless have some intelligence, are required to observe at least certain mitzvot as adults. Accordingly, Rav Moshe held that we are obligated in the mitzvah of Chinuch, educating them when they are children.
As explained by Rav Yuval Cherlow, Rav Moshe’s mandate that the community include and welcome the child with a disability into the synagogue is not merely a benevolent act of kindness; it also enables the child to develop his capabilities to be a member of the Jewish people obligated in the performance of mitzvot. Regrettably, despite the remarkable strides the Jewish community at large has taken regarding inclusion, many communities continue to fall somewhat short in the synagogue youth department setting.
Fortunately, a relatively new model has been introduced in a number of synagogue youth departments which promises to more fully actualize Rav Moshe’s plea. Synagogues in major Jewish communities such as Teaneck, West Orange, Silver Spring, and Boca Raton have instituted a “Shadow Program” for Shabbat Morning Youth Groups (hereinafter referred to as “Groups”) to include children with special needs, with the able assistance of shadows. These Groups present an optimal vehicle for satisfying Rav Moshe’s charge to create an inclusive synagogue for children with special needs. Every community should strive to incorporate this transformative new model into their youth departments.
As in most synagogues, synagogue Groups implementing the Shadow Program start a few minutes after the commencement of Shabbat morning prayers, enabling the children to spend meaningful amounts of synagogue time with their parents, balanced against the limits of their capabilities to pray in the synagogue main sanctuary. Thereafter, the children proceed to Groups.To properly accommodate and include children with special needs, Groups are staffed with “shadows.” Similar to a “buddy system,” each shadow is assigned to one child with special needs, guiding the child, keeping the child on task, and, most importantly, facilitating the inclusion of the child in all of the activities transpiring during Groups.
The shadows are generally high school students who have been trained by the Youth Directors. They may learn by shadowing other shadows already in the program, and may also have prior experience volunteering for organizations.
Unquestionably, it is worth the time a community will invest in making its synagogue youth department a place where every child can succeed and be included.
Rav Moshe mandates that we utilize our resources to make our synagogues inclusive for children with special needs. To date, many synagogues have already incorporated such programing into their youth departments. By instituting a Shabbat Shadow Program in Groups, we can transform even more of our synagogues into fully inclusive institutions, thus realizing Rav Moshe’s goal. The time has come for every synagogue to take this next step towards satisfying Rav Moshe’s philosophy of inclusion. The time for inclusion is now.
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