Rabbi brings joy to people with disabilities

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg has a mission that is both personal and professional. Having served 16 years as rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Seattle (he left the post in June 2004), he believes deeply in the power that religion has to bring people together as a community. But he also feels that all too often, religious communities fall short of true inclusiveness.

For persons with developmental disabilities or mental illness, as well as their family and friends, attempting to join in "typical" religious services and celebrations can be alienating and anxiety-producing. Gartenberg knows these feelings firsthand, as he is the father of a severely autistic son, Moriel.

This fall, Gartenberg made a long-time dream a reality when he created Shaarei Tikvah (Gates of Hope), a community-wide, non-denominational celebration of Rosh Hashanah for people of all abilities. ParentMap had the opportunity to speak with Gartenberg -- our hero this month -- about why communities need events like Shaarei Tikvah.

Q: Why was it important to you personally to champion the idea of the Shaarei Tikvah service?

A: As the parent of a severely disabled child, I have found that it does not always work to integrate children with special needs into typical congregational services. For example, once my son Mori was ridiculed from behind by some teenagers while attending a synagogue service with his aide. The aide was so upset that she fled from the service with Mori.

I was deeply troubled by the fact that such insensitivity takes place in the sanctity of the synagogue, as it does in so many places outside. And I know that because of this, many individuals with special needs and their families do not feel comfortable coming to regular services. I have felt for a long time the need for a service that would meet the needs of these children and their families, allowing them to be themselves without fear of embarrassment and to receive the love and affection they so richly deserve.

Since I did not have a pulpit obligation this year, I decided to make this dream come true. I was fortunate to partner with Cantor David Serkin-Poole of Temple B'nai Torah (who is also a parent of disabled children) and a number of co-sponsoring organizations to make it happen.

Q: What are some of the ways you modified the service to make it accessible to individuals with special needs?

A: We shortened what is usually a five-hour service into 45 minutes, retaining the two key elements -- a (shortened) reading from the Torah portion that is read on Rosh Hashanah, and a blowing of the Shofar (traditional horn instrument). The cantor led several beloved prayers and melodies associated with the liturgy. Instead of a sermon, I told a Hasidic story about the Baal Shem Tov, who praises the simple prayer of a disabled boy.

Q: What kind of responses did the service receive?

A: The responses were powerful and moving. There was one young man in a wheelchair who shrieked with joy when I brought the Torah scroll close to him during the processional. I saw another man cry as he kissed the Torah with the fringes of his prayer shawl. It was a service filled with funny sounds, repetitive gestures and wandering children, but no one had a problem with it. Afterward, family after family came to tell me how much the service meant to them. I was greatly moved to see the joy on so many faces and feel the response to the cantor's singing. It was the most spiritually moving Rosh Hashanah service in my life.

Q: How does your personal commitment to reaching out to people with disabilities relate to the new organization you've founded, Panim Hadashot, or New Faces of Judaism?

A: In forming Panim Hadashot, I felt it was important to reach out to sectors of the Jewish community that were underserved, neglected or disconnected. The idea of Panim Hadashot is based on the ancient marriage custom of inviting new faces to a wedding feast in order to chant the Seven Blessings over the bride and groom. To invite new faces -- those who are beyond our inner circle of family and friends -- is an imperative in Jewish tradition.

I believe that Judaism is a life-affirming religion that cultivates joy and gratitude in daily life as a spiritual path. To spread joy, hope and gratitude, especially to families that face often enormous daily challenges, is a mitzvah-commandment and privilege. My own reality of raising a severely disabled son has made me more sensitive to families that face this challenge. God's compassion can only become manifest in the way we reach out to those who face unique obstacles and bring them close.

Q: What are some other ways that the practice of Judaism could be made more accessible to individuals and families with disabilities?

A: The insight I had with the Shaarei Tikvah service is that special needs persons and their families are just like everybody else in their need for community and sacred moments. But the isolation caused by supporting a person with a disability or mental illness can be very overwhelming. Jewish festivals are times in the year when community comes together to remember the great events in the life of the Jewish people. What better time could there be to reach out to these members of the community? Panim Hadashot, Jewish Family Service and other community organizations plan to hold at least three other festival celebrations before the end of June 2005. Next up will be Hanukah, on Sunday, Dec. 12, at 4 p.m., at Temple B'nai Torah, in Bellevue.

For more information about Panim Hadashot, call 206-525-0337 or email Gartenberg@comcast.net

Allison Dworkin is a freelance writer/editor living in Seattle with two daughters, ages 4 and 2.

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