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Sunday, February 28, 2021

A Special Siddur Delivers Hope

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Living at this time is hard for everyone. There’s the constant thrum of the pandemic, with COVID-19 positivity rates climbing and ICU bed capacity dwindling to non-existence. We have seen frequent posts on social media about someone’s older relative who has died of COVID, and we fear each stranger as a potential carrier of the virus.

And then there are the images and videos of fellow Americans seizing the Capitol and threatening our elected officials, literally desecrating the “temple” of our democracy, waving Confederate flags and wearing Nazi T-shirts. It feels like we are living through one of those strange Star Trek time warp episodes.

For me, there is also the absence of my father, who passed away in March at age 97, taking care of my adult son, Danny, who has intellectual/developmental disabilities, managing other serious family medical issues plus leading a small nonprofit that helps people with disabilities. It’s a lot.

To keep myself going, I think of Tom Hanks in the film “Castaway” — I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, really trying to focus on one day at a time (with some chocolate and CBD for an assist.) Hope seems elusive.

And then, last week, I found a little bag left on our front door porch with an unwrapped book inside. For a minute, I thought it was a strange way for Amazon to send out the latest book I ordered, but when I took it out it of the bag, I saw it was a siddur(prayer book). It was a present for Danny from Yachad Los Angeles, the Jewish special needs inclusion nonprofit affiliated with the Orthodox Union.

We have had a chance to see Yachad’s outstanding work firsthand, best expressed in their Shabbatons, in which they have flown out trained counselors from New York to spend two nights with Danny at a local home or hotel. This meant 100% hands-on care, everything from giving Danny his prescription medications to singing “Mayim, Mayim” at the top of their lungs over and over again. Yachad’s national staff are experts in the field of developmental disabilities and bring a strong pragmatic attitude to the spiritual experience.

But this new siddur wasn’t just a nice reprint of an existing one (even though that would have been nice too). Called the “First Siddur for the Special Needs Community,” this Koren Yachad Siddur is truly a game-changer, acknowledging a deep desire to fully include Jews with special needs in traditional prayer services. It is also thoughtfully designed to meet the unique needs of this population: There are new English translations that are more conceptual and easier to understand than the standard literal translations, plus color-coding and graphic icons to make it easy to follow along with the service choreography — all part of a beautiful, 865-page, hardcover book published by the esteemed Koren publishers in Jerusalem. Yachad is also planning weekly shiurim and Zoom activities to acquaint users with the siddur.

Called the “First Siddur for the Special Needs Community,” the Koren Yachad Siddur is truly a game-changer.

The foreword, written by the siddur’s editors, Rabbi Dr. Benjy Leibowitz and Michael Adler, explains that the visionaries behind this project are Mr. and Mrs. Ethan and Yael Gross of Detroit, Michigan. “A few years back,” the foreword explains, “Ethan came up with the idea of Yachad Siddur when he realized that his beloved (son) Jacob needed something different, something extra to be able to pray and connect with God.”

Reading those words gave me chills. The fact that so many people took the time and resources to create this loving gift of a siddur gives me hope for a much more inclusive Jewish community than we have now.

Hope was peeking out, one page at a time.


Michelle K Wolf is a parent disability advocate and the Founding Executive Director of JLA Trust & Services https://jlatrust.org/.

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