After a particularly difficult day it is always nice to arrive home. Whether it is the greeting of a loved one, the eager wagging of a dog’s tail, or a cat’s enthusiastic meow – it feels good because it is familiar. The couch is where it was the morning you left, the book you were reading lies on your bedside table waiting for your return, and you can navigate your home with your eyes closed. Just as the home brings comfort, so does the familiarity of Judaism. As Jews we follow rituals on holidays, including Shabbat, and in our home. No matter how distant we may become from the practice of Judaism, some things remain inherent – dinner on Friday night, the Pesach Seder, adhering to dietary laws (even when we do not go to shul) are there because there is a sense of comfort instilled in holding to those traditions.
In the synagogue we find comfort in familiarity as well. Regardless of the city where we attend synagogue we know the prayers will be the same, the Torah is likely to be in a similar location, and we will face east when we pray. Each week we read from the Torah, the same verse we read the year before, we will hear the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (unless it is Shabbat), and even our children begin to follow the service at an early age.
For Jews with special needs the synagogue is a source of comfort in that it provides ritual. According to Spagnola and Fiese (2007), this type of ritual is akin to predictable structure. This type of structure guides behavior and is a comfort to those with disabilities, especially autism. It also aids in the early development of children. In addition to academic skill development through education on Israel, Jewish history, and reading Hebrew, the synagogue provides a way for individuals to develop social skills as well. Starting with Hebrew school or just attending services, the synagogue provides a microcosm of society that allows many with social difficulties the opportunity to engage in a safe and familiar setting. The Bar or Bat Mitzvah is an opportunity for a young person to hone public speaking skills, for those with special needs it is an opportunity to be a part of something greater through the ritual of a Torah portion and leading the service – something they have likely seen again and again. In addition, the ritual of the service provides a familiar foundation that creates a sense of comfort in many who require the unchanged routine.
I realize that for many the simplicity of ritual’s impact on special needs is just that – simple. However, I find it hopeful and comforting that the synagogue is a place that may provide those lost to other avenues a safe place to pray.
Dr. Lisa Grajewski is a therapist with Jewish Federation & Family Services in Orange County and an Adjunct Professor at Argosy University and The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Dr. Grajewski has been with JLife Magazine since 2004.