When parents gather for monthly meetings of Ozreinu, a spiritual support group for families with special-needs children, the first thing they do is check in.
Before they get to the Jewish text, before they begin the formal discussion, they update each other on what's been going on over the last month.
"Every month we gather there is stronger sense of community," said Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer, the group's founder. "It provides a forum for really honest sharing without embarrassment. And there is always a lot of humor that only another parent with a special-needs kid can appreciate."
Ozreinu, Hebrew for "our help," is "cross-denominational and multidiagnosis," as Fields-Meyer put it, and includes families of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), cerebral palsy, autism and mental retardation.
From its beginning in 2000, the small group that met in Westside living rooms has expanded, with satellite groups in Santa Monica, Valley Village and Sherman Oaks.
At each meeting, parents study a Jewish text -- anything from Bible to Talmud to modern Israeli poetry -- as a jumping off point for discussion.
"We always find ourselves in the text, and we always find a way to support each other through the text," Fields-Meyer said.
At a recent meeting, for example, the group discussed the story of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, who after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem took the risk of envisioning a new and different future for the Jewish people. They related his situation to the risks they take -- in changing schools or therapies, in making decisions that impact the rest of the family.
"Being a parent is all about making choices and taking risks," Fields-Meyer said. "Being a parent of [special-needs] children intensifies that exponentially, and we use Jewish texts to open up doors to talk about those difficulties."
Fields-Meyer has helped launch Ozreinu meetings in San Jose and Rhode Island. The rabbi provides the facilitators with texts and suggests ways to guide the discussion. Two more groups, in Seattle and Marin County, are set to launch in September.
Overall, it has been quite the year for Fields-Meyer, a Conservative rabbi and mother of three boys (Ami, 11; Noam, 7; and Ezra, 9, who has autism). She spent last fall publicizing her well-received book, "A Day Apart: Shabbat at Home" (co-written with Noam Zion of the Shalom Hartman Institute). Last spring, she was honored by the Mintz Family Foundation with its Creative Jewish Education Award for her work with Ozreinu.
Last winter, Ozreinu conducted its first Shabbaton for about 50 adults and 70 children, which was held on President's Day weekend at Camp Ramah in Ojai and supported by the Jewish Community Foundation. Fields-Meyer coordinated the event with Tara Reisbaum, director of Camp Ramah's Tikvah Program, a summer camp for Jewish adolescents with developmental and emotional disabilities.
Parents said they were energized by the weekend, despite a record-breaking downpour. There were developmentally appropriate activities for the children, who stayed in separate cabins, while parents forged new bonds over Torah study and discussions.
"The best part of the Shabbaton was not worrying about how my daughter was behaving or if people were evaluating her," said Judith Rubin, a member of the Ozreinu group at Adat Ari El in Valley Village. "It was nice to enjoy the weekend without the added burden of other people's judgments."
Parents saw their children with special needs, as well their other children, making friends and gaining confidence.
"I liked the fact that they [the brothers and sisters] had their own sessions where they could open up about life with a special-needs sibling," said Cindy Steinschriber, whose 11-year-old son, Yoni, attended the Shabbaton. "I knew he would benefit both from being able to talk about his own experiences, as well as hearing about the experiences of others."
Steinschriber is a founding member of Ozreinu on the Westside. Her daughter, Liora, is 14 years old and has multiple challenges, including ADHD and developmental delays. While she has been in other, non-Jewish support groups, Steinschriber likes "the idea of learning Torah as the key component and the fact that the group was comprised of parents within our local community."
At the retreat, Fields-Meyer said, "Jewish families were able to meet each other for spiritual support, insight and networking. Most importantly, they came away with the sense of being included in the Jewish community, that the Jewish community has a place for them."
For more information on Ozreinu, contact Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer at email@example.com.