Wednesday, February 7, 2018
By Sarah Rabin Spira, Manager, PJ Library, and Lisa Handelman, Federation’s Disability Inclusion Specialist
You know how you have an idea and then bounce it off the nearest colleague and it grows into a real plan and then it finally comes to fruition and it feels like a dream come true? That’s how we feel about the Sensory-Friendly Purim Celebrations. It was a germ of an idea—based on something Temple Sinai offered years ago—that we wanted to meet families’ needs so that PJ Library and The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington could be even more welcoming to families with children with special needs. We are excited to partner with Washington Hebrew Congregation for the 2018 Sensory-Friendly Purim.
We want to make Purim accessible for more families. It would be hard to make the main synagogue megillah readings inclusive of people with sensory sensitivities—they are, by design, noisy and raucous—but we figured we could offer a viable alternative for families that need it. In addition to relying on expertise of each other and our partners in early childhood education, special needs education and Jewish education, we are also working with Matan, an organization that empowers others to create learning environments supportive of children with special needs, and with local parents of children with special needs.
To help you decide if this is right for your family, we have created a list of anticipated questions and answers. If there’s anything you need to make this experience more enjoyable or accessible for your family, please email us. If there are any questions we missed, please email or comment below. We hope you will join us at one of the three locations and that you’ll tell your friends!
Sarah and Lisa
Questions about the Format of the Event
Questions about Logistics
- Why are you doing this?
- What do you mean by “sensory-friendly”?
- Is this just for children with special needs?
- What will be happening?
- Why is it being held in synagogues?
- Will food be served?
- How many people will be there?
- Are they all the same?
- Is this right for my child?
- What about the carnivals and other noisy Purim activities held at these synagogues?
- What ages is this best for?
- What if my child doesn’t want to participate in everything?
Questions about Purim
- What’s a megillah?
- Will you be reading the whole megillah?
- Do we have to know a lot about Purim to attend?
- Do I have to be a member of that synagogue to attend?
Questions about the Format of the Event
Why are you doing this?
As we noted above, we know that there are a lot of families for whom Purim is a difficult experience due to the noise and crowds. But it’s also important to have opportunities for families to participate in Jewish life in a way that works better for their needs. In Judaism, the value that supports our work in inclusion is Adam Yehidi Nivrah (“ad-dam yeh-hee-dee neev-rah”), which means “every person is a unique creation." It is a fundamental Jewish value expressed through the respect given to all human beings.
What do you mean by “sensory-friendly”?
Reading the megillah—one of the four mitzvot (“commandments,” the plural of mitzvah) for celebrating Purim—is a wonderful experience…unless you are scared or overwhelmed by large crowds and startling noises. For example, there are lots of people shaking groggers (noisemakers) and yelling “BOO!” at Haman’s name.
To adapt the megillah-reading for a sensory-sensitive audience, we will be doing the following:
- Having the children make signs that say “Boo!” or drawing face signs that indicate their emotional reaction to Haman (e.g. sad or angry)—no noisemakers will be used.
- Letting the children know when Haman’s name is going to be said during the reading—to give advance notice. Part of the issue with loud noises for some children is that they are startling, but when they are expected, it’s easier for them to prepare and adjust.
- Having a quiet area where children can step out of the room where the megillah is being read but still feel part of the experience.
- Having a social story to help parents prepare their child for the experience.
Some theaters and arts centers offer sensory-friendly performances where they turn up the lights, turn down the volume and allow people to get up, walk, dance and/or sing. We are adapting that idea to this megillah experience.
Is this just for children with special needs?
No, this would be appropriate for a wide range of children. All of us have some level where we go into sensory overload, and Purim, which by design is noisy and chaotic and raucous, can be overwhelming for many. This is a way to experience Purim in a quieter—but still authentic—way.
What will be happening?
A social story made available to all families (see links at the end of this answer) provides an overview. A social story is a story told in words and pictures that prepares a child with special needs for an activity—it walks through all of the steps of a program, from the outside of the building to the actual activities, so that a child may feel prepared. We will have parts of the social story up at the program to walk families through the experience of three of the four ways of celebrating Purim—hearing the megillah, giving gifts of food (mishloach manot, "mish-low-ach mah-note") and giving food to the poor (matanot levyonim, "mah-tah-note le-evy-oh-neem"). (The fourth is having a festive meal.) We will have a donation bin for the canned goods we are asking families to bring. We will also be making capes that children can pin or tie on (their choice) and signs to hold up in place of yelling “Boo!” or shaking a grogger. In addition, there will be a Book Nook with PJ Library Purim books. Halfway through the hour-long program, we will have families join us for an interactive megillah reading. There will be songs—and possibly a guitar played—along with the story.
While the craft activities will close once the megillah reading starts, the Book Nook will be open during the whole time for children who would like to take a break.
Sample Social Story for DC Location
Why is it being held in synagogues?
The megillah is typically read in synagogue on Purim (which starts at sundown on February 28 this year). We felt it was appropriate to have the megillah reading done by synagogue clergy in an accessible way for families with children with special needs. While we hold many PJ programs in public spaces, we thought this was a great opportunity to showcase that our local synagogues are open, accessible and welcoming.
Questions about Logistics
Will food be served?
We will have mishloach manot (food gifts) as take-homes for each family at each location. These will have kosher hamantaschen (triangular cookies with fillings) and another snack, like raisins. If you have food allergies or restrictions, please let us know. All food served will be kosher and nut-free.
How many people will be there?
We are limiting the event to 20 families in order to minimize crowd noise and provide a better experience.
Is this right for my child?
You know your child best, of course. We are designing this to be appropriate for children who have sensory-processing issues, are on the autism spectrum or have other special needs that make crowds and loud, startling noises problematic. It is also good for children who may not have an identified special need but have a preference for a quieter environment. For example, there is a child who just had ear tubes placed, so the world is now a much louder place. While he’s still adjusting, this is a great way for him to celebrate Purim without having to cover his ears.
What about the carnivals and other noisy Purim activities held at these synagogues?
The times and locations we picked are intentionally separate from the carnivals held by our partner. At Washington Hebrew, their carnival is at their Potomac location, also in the morning.
What ages is this best for?
This is best for children in grades Kindergarten through 4th. However, kids of all ages are welcome and will enjoy it. Parents who think that this will be developmentally-appropriate for their child—of any age—are welcome to register.
What if my child doesn’t want to participate in everything?
That’s perfectly okay! We will have quiet areas for kids to take breaks, and we don’t expect that every child will want to do everything. The goal is to offer options in a caring, sensitive way that allow children and their grownups to do what they need to do to experience Purim.
Do we have to pre-register?
Please do—it will help us make sure that we have enough supplies. More importantly, it will help us limit the number of people at each location in order to offer a better experience for all. You can pre-register online: shalomdc.org/sensorypurim
Questions about Purim
What’s a megillah?
A megillah is a scroll that tells a story from the Torah. The Megilat Esther is the “Story of Esther,” and it is read every Purim.
Will you be reading the whole megillah?
We will be reading a pared-down version of the megillah that shares the story but is shorter and more appropriate for younger attention spans.
Do we have to know a lot about Purim to attend?
Not at all. We will have a lot of explanations throughout the event. To feel more prepared personally, though, you are welcome to check out the Purim blog posts from Bookmark, the PJ Library blog. The four mitzvot of Purim are 1) hear the megillah read, 2) give gifts to the poor, 3) give gifts of food to friends/neighbors and 4) have a festive meal. To learn more about these, please read All About the Traditions of Purim on Bookmark. You can also download the PJ Library one-pager on Purim.
Do I have to be a member of that synagogue to attend?
Nope—you can be a member of any synagogue or not a member of a synagogue. All are welcome. Each location is offering this service as a “hub” for the community to come together at a location convenient for each family.
Did we miss a question you'd like answered? Ask in the comments below or email us!
Download this as a PDF