Welcoming special-needs families at Vista Del Mar

Six years ago, when Rabbi Jackie Redner was hired as a full-time rabbi at Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services center, she decided to visit the kids in the Nes Gadol program first. Nes Gadol is designed to prepare children with autism for their bar and bat mitzvahs — they learn about Jewish history and religious practice and write speeches about their relationship to Judaism and faith. Many of the kids are nonverbal, so through a program called the Moses and Aaron Cooperative, each child selects someone who will speak their words aloud from the bimah on the big day.

The first child Redner interacted with was a boy named Dov. He was one of their toughest cases — “When I came into the Nes Gadol classroom, he was sitting on the floor, rocking, you name it, just really not focused,” she said of that initial encounter. 

But Redner decided that if she was going to work with these children, she shouldn’t shy away from the challenges, so she sat with him and tried to get to know him. Dov doesn’t speak, but he can communicate by typing. The first thing he typed to her — one letter, one finger at a time — was: “Will you help me prepare for my bar mitzvah?” At the end of the session, he thanked her for her patience. 

One hundred years ago, Vista Del Mar was a Jewish orphanage, a West Los Angeles refuge for children who didn’t have anywhere else to go. Now the 18-acre campus serves children and families from a variety of religious backgrounds and with a variety of needs, providing residential programs for kids in the foster system and nonpublic elementary and high school classrooms for children with learning and behavioral disabilities.

Redner is in charge of the Jewish life aspects of Vista Del Mar’s programming. It’s a smorgasbord of undertakings, including the Nes Gadol program, as well as creating High Holy Days services designed to welcome families of children with disabilities. Although Nes Gadol focuses specifically on kids with autism who are also nonverbal, the point of the High Holy Days services is to provide a welcoming Jewish space to all families who otherwise have trouble finding places where they can worship with children who have trouble focusing, reading, sitting still or just staying quiet. 

“Our demographic is any kid who would get kicked out of any other program,” said Redner’s colleague, Elaine Hall, who runs the acclaimed Miracle Theater program at Vista.

Nes Gadol grew out of Hall’s Miracle Project, a 22-week program that culminates in the performance of a musical starring kids who are typically developing or who have autism spectrum disorder. Hall created the project as a response to the lack of creative, social outlets for her own son, Neal, who was diagnosed with autism. For her part, Redner comes to this work from a   background in therapy: She was a registered occupational therapist interested in Jungian psychology before she became a rabbi. Both women agree that the goal of their work is to encourage self-expression in children through creativity as well as a sense of their own worth in the world. 

“The Nes Gadol kids are very active in the service,” Redner said of Vista Del Mar’s High Holy Days programs. “They’re completely integrated, and they’re not just welcome, but they actually get to be leaders.” She considers this a crucial piece of the puzzle. 

“Parents of kids with special needs don’t get to brag about their kids,” she added. “They don’t get the nachas.” But when the kids are encouraged to study and to speak, “they allow the congregation to find their own light, and by including them we elevate our services.”

Both Hall and Redner are quick to clarify that what they’re doing isn’t service work in the traditional sense. 

“We don’t know who’s before us,” said Redner, who added that her default mode is to “assume intelligence” in the kids she works with. She takes their unique perspectives and perceptions as open windows onto new ways of seeing the world. 

To that end, Redner and Hall have recently secured a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation to create the Vista Inspired Community Inclusion Program, which will pilot a program focusing on including special-needs families into more traditional congregations. 

“This isn’t about doing good for some poor person,” Redner said. “We’re hoping to partner with them to help them engage with, support and be elevated by these children.”

At the end of an interview, Redner screens a video of Dov’s bar mitzvah, a montage that includes his process of writing his speech and then someone delivering it for him on the bimah. Dov’s talk begins with a simple assertion: “Everyone desires some way to reach somebody.” Before he learned to type, there was no way for Dov to communicate with the people around him; he was 11 before his parents knew what was going on inside their son’s head. When they asked him what he’d been up to all those years, Dov replied simply: “Listening.” 

The Jewish Life programs at Vista Del Mar return the favor for those years of listening, encouraging children with autism to speak their minds, to engage with their faith and to find a way to reach out to their community.