Autism, cerebral palsy, Asperger’s syndrome, Down syndrome, and ADHD are no longer obstacles to Purim fun as Friendship Circle programs, offered at 20 Chabad-Lubavitch centers around the world, sponsor events for children with special needs for the upcoming holiday.
Celebrated this year March 13-15, Purim marks the salvation of the Jewish people in 365 B.C.E. from certain annihilation at the hands of Haman, a prime minister whose evil ways were trumped only by the righteousness of Mordechai, the valiance of Queen Esther and the prayers of Jewish children. Creativity and thoughtful planning are required to ensure that children with special needs are included, but not overwhelmed, by the festivities of the lively holiday of Purim.
Holidays like Purim–that throw carefully structured schedules off kilter–have the potential to be so disruptive that families with children with special needs can view them as hassle-days instead of holy-days. “Families raising children with special needs can be overwhelmed with schooling, therapy and advocating for their children to seek involvement in the Jewish community. The Friendship Circle is an opportunity for them to see how much the Jewish community cares for all children and all families,” said Director of the Friendship Circle of MetroWest, NJ, Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum.
Pots of washable, face-friendly paint and soft paintbrushes are ready for the Friendship Circle S. Diego Purim Celebration at Chabad of Poway. Gragger crafts, Jewish sand art, and dancing–guided by a music therapist–will be available in different rooms. “Having all activities in one room, a regular carnival that’s noisy and crowded, does not work for our kids,” said Friendship Circle of S. Diego Director Elisheva Green. As a middle school teacher and mother of a child with developmental delays, Green structured the program with lots of movement built in to help children with attention disorders remain engaged.
Consideration of children’s needs led Esther Bogomilsky, director of the Friendship Circle for the Chai Center in Seattle, to include a “quiet room” at the Purim party. There, children with a low tolerance for light and sounds can enjoy the holiday on their own terms. Party refreshments–light on the cake and cookies, heavy on the veggies and potato chips–were chosen to enable children on gluten-free diets, common among those with autism spectrum disorders, to snarf down snacks just like all other kids do on Purim.
At the party thrown by Friendship Circle of MetroWest, NJ, careful observers will note the high number of teenage volunteers milling about. Arguably one of the largest Friendship Circle programs in the country, MetroWest has an active list of some 600 teenage volunteers who contributed over 25,000 volunteer hours over the last year. Many will be on hand to help the children experience Purim fun, providing parents with a much-needed break. Friendship Circle events are places parents of children with special needs feel comfortable. “Everyone is in the same situation. The atmosphere is very accepting. No one is questioning them,” said Rabbi Grossbaum.
In S. Diego, the camaraderie between parents will be upped into a networking and support session during the party. While the kids move from activity to activity, a facilitator will help parents share ideas over coffee and hamantaschen pastries, a format that worked well during previous Friendship Circle gatherings, Green said.
Purim festivities offer Friendship Circle an opportunity to gather volunteers for special thank-you events. A comedy troupe will be entertaining volunteers in New Jersey. Spicy Mexican food will be served at the volunteer party in Washington. But directors across the country agree with Malya Shmotkin, Director of Friendship Circle of Stamford, CT, Teen volunteers show up to events when their participation will benefit their “special friends,” she said. “Parties are not the primary motivation for volunteering with the friendshipcircle.com. They want to make a difference in a child’s life.”