Why is This Seder Different From All Other Seders?

Every seder presents its own challenges, whether it’s in deciding which haggadah to use or how much wine to add to the haroset. But for families of people with special needs, the usual frenetic Passover planning can go into overdrive as they search for ways to make the seder meaningful for all their loved ones.

Fortunately there are a number of Jewish resources that can help. The New York-based Jewish Braille Institute, for instance, provides haggadot in Braille, large print or audiocassette versions for the blind and visually impaired. The institute carries nearly every haggadah imaginable, from the “Women’s Haggadah” to the heavily traditional “Birnbaum” edition and even the standard “Maxwell House” version.

Israel Taub, associate director of the institute, said the aim is to keep people who lose their vision involved with their family’s holiday celebration.

“Say Grandpa has led the seder for many years, but now, even with special glasses, cannot see well enough to read the haggadah,” Taub said. “He is then forced to sit on the sidelines, trying to remember what comes next. He no longer feels like the patriarch of the family. Along comes JBI and the first thing we want to do is get Grandpa back at the head of the table. So we send him the materials he needs to put him there.

“It’s the same with any holiday. We need to find a way of including someone with a visual impairment, rather than having them feel excluded or, which is especially true of the elderly, becoming a shut-in,” Taub said.

The materials are free (even the postage is paid for by the U.S. Postal Service), although a certification of visual impairment, usually in the form of a doctor’s note, is required. The organization also loans audio books to people with dyslexia and other learning disabilities. For more information, call (800) 433-1531 or visit the JBI website at www.jewishbraille.org.

Relatives of the deaf and hearing impaired face the opposite challenge: How to make the seder visually stimulating in the absence of sound. Jan Seeley, administrator of Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf, said her congregation uses props like frog puppets during the reading of the plagues to keep people, especially children, interested during their community seder.

“You also need to make sure the room is logistically good for signing,” she said. “Everyone should be seated so they can see the leader. It’s also nice to make sure the lighting in the room is bright enough — some of those banquet rooms at hotels can be awfully dim — and that if there are curtains or a backdrop [make sure] it is dark and the pattern is not too busy. A backdrop that is light in color doesn’t work for us because it makes a signer’s hands blend in.”

Seeley said the congregation follows a traditional service, but with a twist — like having a finger spelling contest for the song “Had Gad Ya.”

“It gives us a visual break in the service,” she said. “To watch someone sign for three hours is just exhausting.”

Like the third and fourth of the fabled Four Sons, autistic, developmentally delayed or learning disabled children have a tough time grasping the meaning of the Passover experience. A traditional seder, with its heavy reliance on sitting still and reading from a book full of archaic and unfamiliar words, simply will not work. Instead, parents of these children, like Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, often find it easier to create their own service.

“The requirement of the Passover seder is fairly broad,” said Artson, who was recently appointed dean of the University of Judaism Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and whose son, Jacob, has autism. “You have to mention certain things, but the core of the haggadah is in the telling of the story.”

Artson said his family follows the traditional ceremony through all the brachot until they reach the midrash about the journey out of Egypt. They then close their books and tell the story through a mixture of music and drama.

“We actually dress the kids up and they enact the story, confronting the Pharaoh and signing songs about the plague and marching to freedom. Then we go back to the table and complete the seder, which meets the halachic requirements.”

Artson, along with Ruth Lund, has compiled a booklet titled “Kid’s Songs for Passover” to help families in creating their own seder rituals. It is available free through the Board of Rabbis of Southern California at (323) 761-8600.

The rabbi said the important thing is for each family to make the seder something their children and loved ones can appreciate, each at their own level.

“Forcing children to endure an endless ritual they don’t understand is a perversion of the intent (of the seder),” Artson said. “This is our ‘kid phase’ of life, so we have a seder that is different than the one we will have ten years from now.”