Friday, March 26, 2010

Texas Seder for all includes people with disabilities

From the Houston Chronicle:

The adults sitting around the festively decorated Passover Seder table listened with rapt attention as the rabbi told the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt. Not an ordinary service, this mock Seder was held for the benefit of 10 severely disabled adults, complete with a kosher meal consisting of traditional Passover foods.

Rabbi Dovid Goldstein of Chabad Outreach led the service for the participants from State Supported Living Centers.

Passover begins with the first Seder on March 29, but for this event, facility vehicles took five Jewish adults from the Brenham location and five more from the Richmond location, along with their caretakers, to the Chabad Outreach Center in southwest Houston.

Although the participants are mainly nonverbal, their pleasure in participating in this event was obvious. An occasional “amen” was shouted, and the songs and music were enjoyed, as was the special meal.

The Passover Seder is one of the most widely participated in of all Jewish rituals, according to Jewish census information, yet it is one that these same adults were excluded from before 2000.

Jewish residents who need full-time care because of their disabilities make up a tinyminority of these state facilities, which include chapels and Christian services.

Ileene Robinson, sister of longtime Richmond resident Rita Sue Rosenfield, 63, approached Goldstein in 1999 about the need to provide Jewish programming for the residents. He stepped up with a variety of programs, including the first mock Seder in 2000.

“It is wonderful to see Rabbi Goldstein with these precious adults,” Robinson said. “To me, he is something like an angel who was sent from up above.”

Robinson has been fervent in her drive to include these residents in Jewish observance, including a Seder.

“They dress up in their nicest clothes, and when they see the beautiful table before them, they rise to the occasion,” Robinson said . “You can see them reaching out to God and God reaching out to them, and you can see that the music and prayers have meaning to them. It is very uplifting to see.”

Family members and volunteers gathered at this Seder to share the important ritual with the participants.

Dora Lee Robertson's son Seth, 42, is a resident at Brenham. Robertson, who always attends, said her son did not have an opportunity to celebrate Passover while he was growing up at the facility. He has never missed a Seder from the time they began 10 years ago, and he now remembers some elements of the Seder from year to year.

“He pays attention, and he smiles and claps when they sing,” Robertson said. “I can't help but cry from joy each and every time I see this.”

Having raised her daughter in a religious home, Abby Gottleib is grateful that her daughter Dana, 23, who functions as a 5-year-old because of a severe seizure disorder and brain damage, can continue observing Judaism. She entered the Richmond facility five years ago.

“If she outlives us, the most important thing is that she doesn't forget who she is,” Gottleib said. “I have no doubt that if she did not have these religious programs, she would assimilate and not remember her religion. She really enjoys it. She is very verbal and can fully participate in the prayers and songs.”

Chabad Outreach's Houston Friendship Circle, formed in 2003, has an Adult Division that helps fund celebrations for each Jewish holiday for residents of the state facilities, as well as occasional Sabbath services. Other divisions of the Friendship Circle organization sponsor many additional programs, such as a home-visitation program to give special-needs children buddies to play with.

Jewish organizations are not alone in working on the inclusion of the special-needs community; many other faiths and faith organizations provide support services, programming and assistance.

Glenda Kane of Corpus Christi, who serves as the chair of the Texas Department of State Health Services Council, said she is aware of the hard work involved in bringing specialized services to people who can't advocate for them on their own behalf, but feels strongly about faith communities offering them.

“It is important to include special-needs individuals in being a part of society when it comes to religion, and no matter what their faith is, and to offer a spiritual dimension in their lives,” Kane said.