Once a month, Nadine Silber, her husband and two little boys drive all the way from their Bucks County home in Bristol Borough for Saturday morning services at Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia.
The draw: Celebrations! — an educational workshop tailored for children with disabilities and their families.
There are closer synagogues, Silber said, but none of them has programs suitable for their sons — Aaron, 4, and Ethan, 6 — who are both on the autism spectrum. They do whatever Jewish things they can at home, like lighting Shabbat candles, "but it's a little bit lonely when you don't have a community to share it with.
"When you see someone who is warm and inclusive," she continued, "you jump and you drive an hour. It's worth it."
Perhaps she won't have to travel quite so far in the future. Following a successful pilot year, Celebrations organizers recently won a $20,000 grant from the Covenant Foundation to keep the initiative going and write a curriculum that other synagogues in the area — and maybe even across the country — could use to create similar programs.
The grant announcement came just before February, which was established as Jewish Disability Awareness Month in 2009.
In tandem with national efforts, Celebrations is one of several local initiatives that have emerged in recent years. At the crux of the local action is a consortium of Jewish professionals who oversee anything from Hebrew school special education to inclusion pilots at synagogues.
Coming up this spring: a third annual community conference and the launch of a comprehensive, searchable website aggregating all sorts of services that someone with disabilities might need.
A portion of the funding from the New York-based Covenant Foundation, which has funneled nearly $22 million into Jewish education and community-building projects around the country since 1991, will also allow Celebrations to add two new holiday programs — both free and open to any families in the Jewish community with special needs children.
The first, a Purim carnival, will be held at the Reconstructionist synagogue on Friday, March 2, at 4:30 p.m., followed by a dinner and a short service. Like a "traditional" carnival, there will be a clown, a bubble machine, mask-making and so forth, but no loud noises or bright lights "so that the room doesn't feel like everywhere you turn there's something going on," said Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer, the director of Celebrations.
The second holiday program will center around Simchat Torah in the fall.
Kaplan-Mayer came up with the Celebrations concept after considering religious school options for her 9-year-old son, George, who has autism. She wasn't sure Hebrew school would work for him, she said, but she wanted him to have music and prayers and community like every other kid. And, if possible, she wanted to be a part of it.
"We want to help families be Jewish together," she said.
Since she was working as the synagogue's youth director at the time, she simply folded the project into her job duties. Fifteen families have joined in since she began hosting the monthly workshops in fall 2010, held in a multipurpose room while regular services take place in the sanctuary.
About half of the families belong to Mishkan Shalom. In addition to autism, the children have a range of learning and developmental disorders, including cerebral palsy and Down syndrome.
Instead of a full Torah service, Kaplan-Mayer and Michelle Greenfield, a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, lead a series of songs and blessings. The kids can sing or not sing, move around, lay on the floor or even touch Greenfield's guitar.
"They don't have to sit in a seat or do exactly what everyone else is doing," Silber said. "Everybody can be joyful and not have to worry about stressing out that they have to do things like everybody else."
After that, the families divide into two groups — one for kids up to age 10, the other for pre-teens and high schoolers — for a hands-on learning program centered around a Jewish theme.
The best part, Silber said, is being able to interact with her children the whole time, which isn't always possible in a standard synagogue service.
"We get to see them learning and enjoying and lighting up and loving the music."
Silber said she and her husband have been looking for something like this for years. Since their 6-year-old is home-schooled, she said, they were especially eager to find ways for him to connect with other children.
"We just didn't want our kids to not have access to their culture and their history and their religion just because they have a difficult time sitting through a service or Hebrew school," Silber said. "They learn differently, but they learn."
It's not that children with special needs shouldn't be included with everyone else, but sometimes it's just nice to be with others in the same situation "so it becomes kind of supportive and familiar," said Jaime Bassman, a pediatric occupational therapist from Ardmore who brings her 7-year-old son, Julian, who is on the autism spectrum, and 3-year-old daughter, Sophie, to Celebrations.
"Even the most supportive synagogue, it's not the same when maybe you're the only family with a child with special needs."
Like many of her fellow parents in Celebrations, Bassman has debated when, or if, Hebrew school would be appropriate for Julian. They belong to Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley, but so far Bassman said she only takes Julian there once a month for children's services.
Celebrations has been a great complement to that, she said, giving him "what he needed from a Hebrew school experience but really wasn't ready for just yet, in terms of learning about the ritual, learning about the prayers, being able to connect to his Jewishness."
Both siblings "really get into it," she continued. "They really appreciate being Jewish."
The Jewish community has certainly made progress in welcoming those with special needs, Kaplan-Mayer said, but there are likely thousands of unaffiliated families who don't even bother investigating Jewish educational opportunities because they assume there's nothing appropriate for their needs.
"We don't want any barriers to their participation," said Kaplan-Mayer. "We need to really meet people where they are, literally and metaphorically."