As the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders reaches epidemic proportions — about 1 in 68 children have ASD, estimated the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2014 — synagogues and other Jewish institutions are striving to provide services for children on the spectrum.

Six area synagogues and Jewish organizations recently joined forces to create Kol Echad: An Experiential Shabbat. Kol Echad, which means one voice, will hold its first inclusive, sensory-friendly service on Nov. 18 at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. Services at other Kol Echad member synagogues will take place monthly throughout the remainder of the 2017-2018 school year.

Geared toward children with autism and sensory-processing disorders — but open to all — the 45-minute services feature soft music, dim lighting and comfortable seating. Sensory products encouraging relaxation or stimulation — such as fidget toys, crash pads, weighted blankets and fluorescent light covers — are available. Participants are free to take movement breaks and talk during services.

Kol Echad’s founding synagogues include BHC, Beth El, Beth Israel, Beth Tfiloh, Chizuk Amuno and Temple Oheb Shalom, as well as the Center for Jewish Education and Shemesh, both of which are agencies of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

Kol Echad was initiated by Erica Hobby, the mother of Jonathan, 8, who has high-functioning autism and attends Beth El’s Berman-Lipavsky Religious School. At Beth El, religious school students with special needs receive individualized instruction. For the past few years, the Pikesville synagogue has provided inclusive, sensory-friendly Shabbat services several times a year.

Hobby says the synagogue’s sensory-friendly Shabbat services were the only kind of services that Jonathan “enjoyed and could sit through. They were also a great way to reinforce and deepen what Jonathan was learning in Hebrew school.”

Hobby, the former vice president of resource development at The Associated, knew the synagogue’s inclusive Shabbat programming could be a resource for other local families. Earlier this year, she took her ideas to Eyal Bor, Beth El’s director of education and director of the Rabbi Mark G. Loeb Center for Lifelong Learning at Beth El.

“When Erica came to me and asked what else Beth El could do [for students with special needs], we said, ‘Why just Beth El? Let’s do a communitywide program,’” recalls Bor. “Today more than ever, Jewish institutions need to collaborate.”

So Bor, Hobby and others created a committee and began outreach. “I couldn’t believe how excited the community was,” Bor says. “Each synagogue chose a date, donated funds and agreed to give their space for services.”

The funding enabled Kol Echad to hire special educator Mia Aronin to administer the program.

To be part of Kol Echad, each synagogue was required to send representatives from their staffs for inclusion training provided by CJE and Shemesh, a program that provides educational support for Jewish children with learning differences.

Rachel Turniansky, CJE’s coordinator of special needs programming, says the training “was well-received. It was important to have key players buy into the program. The representatives were already on board. But it really opened their eyes to how important the program is, and how reflective it is of Jewish values of inclusion. If everyone doesn’t have access to the Jewish community, then we’re not a complete community.”

Kol Echad’s services will be led by Cantor Karen Webber, a mother of two grown children with disabilities, who has worked extensively with children and adults with special needs.

Webber serves as a cantor at Beth El Congregation in Winchester, Va., and a part-time cantor at Temple Ohev Shalom in Harrisburg, Pa. Since relocating to Baltimore two months ago, she has taught prayer, social justice and art classes at Temple Oheb Shalom.

The cantor envisions Kol Echad as a “traveling arc bringing joy, Jewish melody, engagement and stories” to children with special needs.

“Ideally, children will learn what it’s like to be in a worship service,” Webber says. “I’ll be there with my guitar, we’ll have a 10- to 12-minute curricular piece and we’re creating a simple siddur. Each page will have the names of the prayer, its translation, transliteration and an image or icon.”

Cantor Webber says she will measure the program’s success by the engagement of the participants. “Are people having a good time? Are the children and parents comfortable?” she says.

According to Hobby, Kol Echad’s goal is “to create an environment that is warm and welcoming, especially for members of the community who have felt excluded by the Jewish community in the past. This opens the door to families who may have not been involved with a synagogue before. And synagogues will have the opportunity to welcome new members. It’s a win-win.”

See Cantor Webber on Facebook Live:

For information about Kol Echad, visit facebook.com/ShabbatInclusion.

Top photo: Beth El congregant Erica Hobby, shown here with family, initiated Kol Echad: An Experiential Shabbat to help children with special needs throughout the community. (Photo courtesy of Hobby family)

More In Religion

  • Here’s How Birthright Guides Talk About the Palestinians

    Here’s How Birthright Guides Talk About the Palestinians

    All groups receive a lecture on geopolitics from an Israeli expert. Meeting Palestinians, and seeing Palestinian life, is not part of the itinerary. read more
  • Moving the Needle

    Moving the Needle

    There are so many things to worry about, so many systemic oppressions about which we've become more conscious, so many threats to our basic civil society that too many of … read more
  • The Mitzvah of Growing a Tomato

    The Mitzvah of Growing a Tomato

    Jewish tradition is deeply connected to the land. At the very beginning of the Torah, Adam and Eve, those first human beings, are commanded by God "to till and to … read more
  • GBMC to Dedicate Kosher Pantry

    GBMC to Dedicate Kosher Pantry

    Members of the Jewish community now have access to GBMC's 290-square-foot pantry for kosher refreshments, religious readings and personal contemplation while visiting their loved ones. read more
All In Religion »