When Jennifer Fessler discovered that her nine-year-old nephew, who has autism, had to leave her synagogue’s Purim carnival five minutes after arriving, she resolved to make sure that didn’t happen again — to him or any other child.
“The carnival was too loud, there was too much going on, and there were too many crowds,” said Fessler, president of the sisterhood at Temple Shaari Emeth in Manalapan. “He couldn’t cope with all that was going on in the room.”
As the person in charge of the synagogue’s Purim carnival, Fessler was determined to accommodate youngsters with special needs during an event marked by games, costumes, food, and face painting.
So on Sunday, March 1, Shaari Emeth’s carnival will begin at 10 a.m. instead of 11. Its first hour is strictly for children who have special needs that require a quieter and more gentle environment and where they won’t have to wait on line.
“In the past, when we opened the doors, it was mayhem,” said the temple’s Rabbi Melinda Panken. “We have had hundreds of kids and hundreds of parents and long lines to get into the bouncy house and get tattoos painted on their faces. Usually there is music playing and it is a very vibrant, energetic environment.
“But if you are a child with sensory perception issues, if noise is overwhelming to you, if you have a hard time waiting to go to an activity, this special hour will have a smaller crowd. It will be open only to kids with special needs,” she said.
“I know there are a lot of kids with autism and Asperger’s and Down Syndrome and other special needs.” For them, she said, “noise levels and crowds are very challenging.” And for those who are non-verbal, she added, “it tends to get very frustrating because they cannot verbalize what is bothering them.”
Fessler hopes that between 10 and 15 children will attend the special hour. “The maximum number I’d like to see would be 20,” she said. “Once it gets more that that you are looking at too many.” The holiday party will be open to the Jewish community and beyond. “I think having too many kids would be a great problem to have, but we will work it out.”
The Reform synagogue has several programs for families with special needs.
One is called the “no-shush” Kollel Family Service, which runs for 15 minutes on Saturday afternoons every other month. “It allows parents to talk together and share their insights about raising kids with special needs,” said Panken. “The idea was to create a worship experience where someone doesn’t have to worry about shushing their child.”
In addition, the synagogue has arranged special bar and bat mitzva ceremonies for three children with special needs.
“Each was very different because each was on a different level of the spectrum. One was non-verbal and couldn’t talk at all. One was semi-verbal. One was highly verbal. But all of them were very emotional because I don’t think these parents were expecting to be able to celebrate this life-cycle moment,” Panken said.
“For us it has been a matter of opening our eyes and ears and thinking more carefully,” said the rabbi. “When someone leaves the carnival because it is too overwhelming, to us it is not something that didn’t work; to us it is an opportunity to make us think how we can make it work better.”