"It's a less-is-more approach," Kaplan-Mayer says. It's also a marker of change in religious communities across the faith spectrum, where sanctuary doors - and Sunday schools, youth groups, and vacation Bible study camps - are slowly opening to kids with special needs.
Numbers partly explain the shift: One in 110 children has an autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And as those children - along with those who have cerebral palsy, mental retardation, spina bifida, or other cognitive, behavioral, or physical challenges - are increasingly included in secular school settings, their families expect nothing less from their synagogues, churches, and mosques.
"Parents were seeing that their kids were included in public schools, Scouts, and camps, and it was so bizarre that they didn't feel particularly welcome in religious schools. Teachers or administrators would say, 'Your child scares me,' " said Shelly Christensen, founder of Minneapolis-based Inclusion Innovations, a consulting firm that specializes in welcoming people with disabilities into sacred communities.
Several synagogue-based preschools in the Philadelphia area offer inclusion or self-contained classes for kids with special needs, and a conference next month in Merion, "Opening the Gates of Torah: Including People With Disabilities in the Jewish Community," will feature workshops for parents, rabbis, and educators.
At Keneseth Israel, a Reform congregation in Elkins Park, specially trained teenagers work one-on-one with kids who need extra learning support in Hebrew school, and the rabbi has tailored bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies to fit the needs of kids with attention-deficit disorders or autism - for instance, by having siblings lead parts of the service or using more wordless rituals for a teen with limited speech.
This heightened sensitivity to special needs is nationwide; February marked the fourth annual Jewish Disability Awareness Month, and last May, a teenager with autism celebrated his bar mitzvah at New York's Congregation Rodeph Shalom, a first for that 1,800-family synagogue. The boy is nearly nonverbal, but he practiced for months to say the six Hebrew words of the Sh'ma, the central prayer of Judaism affirming the oneness of God. He cradled the Torah in his arms.
"It was very moving," said Tirza Arad, Rodeph Shalom's director of religious education. "For the family, it was an affirmation that they're included, that we're one people."
The church world is also opening to kids with behavioral, learning, or physical differences, says Amy Fenton Lee, special-needs columnist for Children's Ministry magazine. Last year she launched a blog called "The Inclusive Church," where her most popular posts include one titled "Bad parenting or autism?" The blog has clocked 40,000 reader views, drawing comments from both evangelical and mainline church members.
Barbara Newman, church and school consultant for the Michigan-based Christian Learning Center Network, has helped hundreds of churches develop plans for including special-needs kids in their programming. Still, she says, "I figure there are children in families of every faith background who want to attend a church and are told, 'No, we don't have anything for you here.' "
Jean Kamal wasn't satisfied with that answer. Though she was raised Catholic in Northeast Philadelphia, she never dared bring her young son - diagnosed at age 21/2 as "trainable mentally retarded" - to Mass. "I couldn't sit in a church with him. He would have been distracting, and we would have had to leave."
Today Kamal is special-needs coordinator at Calvary Chapel, a megachurch of 8,000 adults and 5,000 children in the city's Somerton section. She brings her son, now 31, to one of the church's two special-needs services each Sunday. About 35 people - children, teens, and young adults with Down syndrome, autism, Asperger's syndrome, sensory processing disorders, and mental retardation - attend the services, which blend storytelling, games, and music with an elementary-school Bible curriculum.
On a recent Sunday, the turnout was small - just two teens, one with Down syndrome and one with developmental delays, along with some adult volunteers - but the music was rousing as a church member strummed her guitar and the group sang, "He's got Jonathan and Marissa . . . in his hands; he's got the whole world in his hands."
The teens acted out a parable from Mark 12, about a poor widow who puts her only coins in the offering basket while a rich man gives just a portion of his wealth. Jonathan played Jesus, a white robe shrugged on over his crisp suit coat and tie. Marissa, cued by a volunteer, plunked two pennies in a red basket and smiled.
Kamal says that, since the two began coming to the special-needs service, Jonathan has learned to calm his occasional outbursts and Marissa has grown less shy. "I feel like the [special needs] population is so forgotten. A lot of churches don't reach out. But everybody's teachable, in their own way."
Educators, advocates, and parents say inclusion of special-needs kids doesn't benefit only those who participate; the effort ripples through the congregation.
Teens who work as buddies to a child with autism learn more than they could glean from any lesson in "character education," says Newman, the church consultant. "Kids' lives are transformed," she says, "when they can look at a person with a disability and acknowledge the gifts that person has brought into their life."
Inclusion also offers a safe space for parents of kids with disabilities to vent their frustrations, seek support, and exchange parenting tips - or simply enjoy quiet worship time while their kids are occupied. "There are times when you are mentally and emotionally drained," says Kamal. "Here, everybody understands what you're going through."
Purim happens just once a year, but at Mishkan Shalom, a monthly Shabbat morning program called Celebrations, also developed by Kaplan-Mayer, brings together 17 special-needs kids, their siblings, and parents for a short family service, a half-hour activity led by teachers and teen helpers, and some discussion time for adults.
The service is designed for kids with different cognitive and developmental needs. Teacher Michelle Greenfield moves through the group with her guitar, making eye contact with each child. Some children may cling to a parent, race around in circles, or become fixated on the building's elevator; at Celebrations, no one flinches.
Jen Abramson's kids, Leon, 12, and Allyson, 10, have mental retardation and autism; both are nonverbal, but they like to get close to whoever is leading the service or reach out to touch Greenfield's guitar. Ethan Silber, 6, has a hard time sitting still, especially when he knows it's almost time to bless and eat the braided challah that marks the service's end.
And Nathan Horwitz, 18, is likely to blurt out, "Good job!" or "Hooray!" after the group says "Amen." Nathan has been a member of Mishkan Shalom since birth. He attended Hebrew school there until his learning differences - he has autism and mental retardation - made it too hard for him to be in a regular class. And although he now lives away from his parents' Upper Darby home, they bring him to Celebrations once a month for a dose of community, familiarity, and Jewish ritual. "Nathan's general view of the world is that it is unpredictable, challenging, and scary," says his father, Seth Horwitz, "and this provides a really comforting, secure moment."
Resources in Religious Communities
"Opening the Gates of Torah: Including People With Disabilities in the Jewish Community," conference, April 29, at Adath Israel in Merion Station. Contact Deborah S. Gettes, 215-320-0389, dgettes@
Celebrations monthly Shabbat program for special-needs kids and families at Mishkan Shalom. Contact Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer, 215-588-0226, mishkan.org/celebrations
The Inclusive Church: Helping Churches Successfully Include Children With Special Needs, a blog by Amy Fenton Lee, theinclusivechurch.wordpress.com
Inclusion Innovations Minneapolis-based consulting firm on including people with special needs in sacred communities, www.inclusioninnovations.com