July 20, 2024
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JFS Passaic-Clifton Hosts Inclusion Shabbaton

The room rang out with the assorted voices of children and adults singing Shalom Aleichem, some with their quiet, sing-song voices, others belting out the familiar tunes at the top of their lungs. At the Jewish Family Service of Passaic-Clifton Inclusion Shabbaton last weekend, over 30 families, each of whom has at least one child with special needs, came together to enjoy each other’s company, learn from one another’s experiences and connect with those who understand them best.

The weekend started off on Friday morning with breakfast and a powerful, emotional presentation by Judge Dan Butler. The event was attended by over 250 people. That evening, the families ushered in Shabbos together, followed by a Friday night meal at the Tiferes Israel. There were over 30 volunteers available to help families enjoy a lively meal. A memorable moment was when one of the Shabbaton participants graced the group with a moving dvar Torah. Volunteers were paired with the children for the evening. Each volunteer stayed with the child to allow the parents to fully participate in the event. A couple with multiple children with special needs was observed sitting by themselves at the table. The couple remarked that they never have time to themselves. Friday night is usually a time of high stress for them, but thanks to the volunteers they were relaxing and enjoying Shabbos together. After the meal, everyone enjoyed a beautiful oneg led by Judge Butler, who kept the crowd fixated with his powerful stories of healing and hashgacha, causing the audience to laugh and cry simultaneously. Judge Butler also drew a crowd of over to 250 community members earlier that Friday morning as he kept the Passaic-Clifton community spellbound with his fascinating account of a life spent raising his own special-needs children.

Shabbos morning found the Shabbaton at the Young Israel of Passaic-Clifton, where the adults and older children davened. Aliyos were given to individuals with special needs. Everyone was encouraged to participate, regardless of disabilities. The members of the shul welcomed the Shabbaton participants with sincere kindness, patience and understanding. The younger children, and those not able to participate in shul, joined the regular Shabbos groups staffed by the volunteers. Walking down the hall, one could hear the raucous laughter of the children amidst all the donated toys, games and animated stories. Already satiated by the warm atmosphere and loving environment they had encountered, the children sat down to another beautiful meal with the families and volunteers. At the culmination of the meal, the children were accompanied by the volunteers for some more activities. Sibshops, a program for siblings of children with special needs, was available on Shabbos afternoon. This program is also available to girls on a monthly basis at the JFS office.

The community was invited to join the parent panel, facilitated by Butler, where participants had the opportunity to open up and speak freely about the difficulties of raising a child with special needs. One mother bravely spoke about how she lost a child to a neurological disorder, and is still caring for another child with the same disability. Although cognitively aware, he is unable to walk, speak or feed himself. Through tears, she said that this was the first time in 20 years she was able to eat out on a Shabbos. A member of the audience at the parent panel felt it was so educational and helped her acknowledge the different challenges inherent in having a special child, while giving her an appreciation for the gifts and abilities God gives everyone.

One Shabbaton participant said, “The energy at the Shabbaton was warm, helpful and accepting. It was a well-run event and gave a lot of food for thought.”

Over 40 student volunteers from the Passaic-Clifton community came out as well, many of them experienced with the special-needs population, while others were excited and eager to learn. One volunteer so eloquently stated, “As someone who comes from an insular background, this Shabbos was so inspiring. I felt the positive energy of the children as their smiles lit up the room, and I recognized the impact we had on them and the obligation I have to continue making them smile.”

As the sun set and Shabbos faded away, the families were left with a warm feeling of hope and camaraderie. The beautiful Shabbos, however, was only made possible by the hours of work and commitment put forth by a collaborative effort of dedicated organizations and individuals. Jewish Family Service of Passaic-Clifton led this effort. JFS, together with their partnering agencies, Ohel, Sinai, Bikur Cholim, Clifton Cheder, Count Me In, Friendship Circle Wayne, J-Add, Kool Kids, Yachad, Young Israel of Passaic-Clifton, Tifereth Israel, Yeshiva Beit Hillel, and Yeshiva K’tana Passaic took the time to recognize and understand the needs of the community and began a very important dialogue which will continue to be built upon. Through this Shabbaton, participants realized that they are not alone, that there are other mothers, fathers and children out there who understand and care for them. There is a loving, supportive and resourceful community behind them to work through the challenges of life together. The Shabbaton was meant as a beginning for future events, collaborations and advocacy on behalf of our special-needs community.

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