Commentary

Shabbat Morning Youth Groups: Implementing Rav Moshe Feinstein’s Inclusion Imperative

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Zevi Fischer

In 1981, Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l  extensively outlined the extent of the obligation to educate a child with special needs. Rav Moshe explained that those with diminished mental capacities, who may not fully comprehend all things but nonetheless have some intelligence, are required to observe at least certain mitzvot as adults. Accordingly, Rav Moshe held that we are obligated in the mitzvah of hinnukh, educating them when they are children (She’eilot u-Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Yoreh Deah 4:29).

Towards the end of the responsum, Rav Moshe presented a bold position concerning inclusion of people with special needs in our synagogues:

Regarding when they are in attendance at synagogue: the congregation certainly must greet them warmly, even those who are mentally incapable of learning. It should also be seen to that they answer “amen” and that someone recites kedushah with them—whether for their own sake, so that they fulfill what they can, and because attending the synagogue is itself a mitzvah, and so that they can kiss the Torah scrolls—or for the honor of their fathers (ibid.).

Subsequently, Rav Yuval Cherlow reinforced Rav Moshe’s mandate of inclusion, quoting the above exhortation from Rav Moshe and stating as follows:

Therefore, the community, in its support of the child and his participation in communal activities, not only offers hesed towards the child but also furthers his spiritual and mental development. His integration into communal activity, whether in the synagogue or in other activities, truly influences and promotes him, and contributes to bringing him to the level of attainment and understanding that obligates him to perform the mitzvah like the rest of his peers.[1]

As explained by Rav Cherlow, Rav Moshe’s mandate that the community include and welcome the child with a disability into the synagogue is not merely a benevolent act of kindness; it also enables the child to develop his capabilities to be a member of the Jewish people obligated in the performance of mitzvot. Regrettably, despite the remarkable strides the Jewish community at large has taken regarding inclusion, many communities continue to fall somewhat short in the synagogue youth department setting.[2] Fortunately, a relatively new model has been introduced in a number of synagogue youth departments which promises to more fully actualize Rav Moshe’s plea. Synagogues in major Jewish communities such as Teaneck, West Orange, Silver Spring, and Boca Raton have instituted a “Shadow Program” for Shabbat Morning Youth Groups (hereinafter referred to as “Groups”) to include children with special needs, with the able assistance of shadows. These Groups present an optimal vehicle for satisfying Rav Moshe’s charge to create an inclusive synagogue for children with special needs. Every community should strive to incorporate this transformative new model into their youth departments.

As in most synagogues, synagogue Groups implementing the Shadow Program start a few minutes after the commencement of Shabbat morning prayers, enabling the children to spend meaningful amounts of synagogue time with their parents, balanced against the limits of their capabilities to pray in the synagogue main sanctuary. Thereafter, the children proceed to Groups.[3] To properly accommodate and include children with special needs, Groups are staffed with “shadows.” Similar to a “buddy system,” each shadow is assigned to one child with special needs, guiding the child, keeping the child on task, and, most importantly, facilitating the inclusion of the child in all of the activities transpiring during Groups.[4] Ideally, a Shadow Program enables children ranging in age from as young as two and one-half to teenage to participate in all the Shabbat Group activities.[5] If participation in regular Groups activities is not the best fit for the child, he and his shadow may meet in the hallways or other spaces in the synagogue. Importantly, each child’s needs should first be explored by the shadows and Youth Directors.[6] And if, for some reason, a participant is hesitant to join a group, the Youth Directors may sit with the shadow to devise a strategy to ensure the inclusion of that child. With the support of a shadow, children with special needs can be full participants in all of the youth department activities and programs.[7]

The shadows are generally high school students who have been trained by the Youth Directors. They may learn by shadowing other shadows already in the program, and may also have prior experience volunteering for organizations such as the Friendship Circle and Yachad, and/or working at Camp HASC or Camp Simcha. Shadows arrive at Groups full of energy and ready to make every effort to include each child in every possible way.[8] For example, a shadow will seek out a proper game and/or activity which the child with special needs can play with his or her peers. The shadow facilitates the activity, keeping the child on task, and acting as a bridge between the child with special needs and his or her neurotypical contemporaries, ensuring that each child thoroughly enjoys Groups.

Having a Shadow Program within a youth department does not just benefit children with special needs. Properly executed, an inclusive Groups provides a wonderful experience for neurotypical children, as well. Recently, during the prayers portion of Groups at one synagogue, a nine-year-old boy kindly reached over to assist a child with special needs with locating the page in his prayer-book.

And, for the parents, the unquantifiable impact can be life-altering. As one parent emotionally conveyed, “There is nothing more a parent wants than to see his children happily socializing with other children.”[9] Significantly, the teenage youth leaders and shadows also benefit from this opportunity, by appreciating and familiarizing themselves with another’s feelings and needs. As stated by one shadow, “I learned a lot… I learned patience and how to deal with life situations. My father tells me I don’t realize what a chesed I’m doing for the family. I look at it as something that needs to be done.”[10] Similarly, another shadow recently commented, “I love seeing the kids outside of groups and watching their faces light up when I give them a ‘high five.’ I love how everyone is very accepting of all the children that are there every Shabbat. Every time I see that I’m not on the schedule, I get a bit upset because I have one less chance to have the same effect on my kids as my group leaders had on me.”[11]

In fact, when I personally approached one father in my synagogue to apprise him of the wonderful job his son performed as a shadow, he immediately replied, “being a shadow is an amazing experience for our son; it truly provides for him the opportunity to step out of his immediate world, and be more understanding of others.”  Undoubtedly, everyone profits from inclusion. In the end, the approximately two and one-half hours spent at Groups are extremely positive, and all participants can hardly wait for the next Shabbat.

As with the institution of any new synagogue program, the implementation of a Shadow Program may present small challenges. However, none of them is an insurmountable barrier to this great endeavor. For example, the safety of all children will be continually monitored and safeguarded, and will not be affected by the presence of a child with special needs. Similarly, the additional costs for hiring shadows and/or providing training are negligible, and can easily be funded and assumed by the existing synagogue budgets. Simply put, while inclusion takes effort and asks that we step out of our comfort zones, there should be no impediment to a Shadow Program.

In my experience, successfully implemented inclusion programs improve the quality of Groups for all children and benefit an entire community. Some common and effective inclusion best practices to consider in implementing a Shadow Program in a youth department include:

  • Parents, Youth Directors and shadows should initially meet at least once to discuss the child with special needs, as well as his or her personality, strengths, likes, and dislikes.
  • Prior to introducing a child with special needs into Groups, have him or her tour the Groups activity rooms, to familiarize herself with the surroundings.
  • Immediately before Shabbat morning Groups, the parent(s) should inform the shadow of the child’s mood and status for that day; immediately after Groups, the parent(s) should debrief the shadow and assess that day’s Groups experience, as well as what everyone can improve or build upon for the following week.

Unquestionably, it is worth the time a community will invest in making its synagogue youth department a place where every child can succeed and be included.

Rav Moshe mandates that we utilize our resources to make our synagogues inclusive for children with special needs. To date, many synagogues have already incorporated such programing into their youth departments. By instituting a Shabbat Shadow Program in Groups, we can transform even more of our synagogues into fully inclusive institutions, thus realizing Rav Moshe’s goal. The time has come for every synagogue to take this next step towards satisfying Rav Moshe’s philosophy of inclusion. The time for inclusion is now.


[1] Yuval Cherlow, “Aliyah la-Torah of a Child with Special Needs,” June 18, 2007, accessible at http://www.kipa.co.il/ask/show/121889.

[2] In fact, in the most recent publicly available “Directory of Synagogues with Accommodations for Individuals with Disabilities” from the Orthodox Union, only one synagogue responded that it provided accommodations for children with special needs. See “Directory of Synagogues with Accommodations for Individuals with Disabilities,” accessible at http://ou.org.s3.amazonaws.com/resources/disdirectory.htm. While this directory is over thirteen years old and, as detailed herein, a few additional synagogues have since instituted programming for children with special needs, the directory mandates that it is to be updated regularly. As such, the silence and lack of updated information and responses from all of our synagogues regarding accommodating children with special needs is deafening.

[3] Eta Krasna Levenson, “Inclusion: Making a Difference in a Family’s Shabbat, One Child at a Time,” Jewish Link of New Jersey, February 22, 2018.

[4] Bat Sheva Bayla Brenner, “The Power of Belonging Welcoming Jews with Disabilities into Jewish Communal Life,” Jewish Action, Fall 2005.

[5] Pearl Markovitz, “‘Shabbat Morning Can’t Come Soon Enough:’ Rinat’s Shadow Program,” Jewish Link of New Jersey, January 5, 2017.

[6] Ibid.; “Inclusion,” accessible at  http://www.shaaretefillah.org/inclusion.html.  Youth Directors may receive training, as needed, in the area of children with special needs from special education experts and experienced professionals from organizations such as the Friendship Circle and Yachad NCSY.

[7] “‘Shabbat Morning Can’t Come Soon Enough:’ Rinat’s Shadow Program,” supra.

[8] See “Inclusion: Making a Difference in a Family’s Shabbat, One Child at a Time,” supra.

[9] “The Power of Belonging Welcoming Jews with Disabilities into Jewish Communal Life” supra.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “‘Shabbat Morning Can’t Come Soon Enough:’ Rinat’s Shadow Program,” supra.