“Hava narishah - rash, rash, rash (Wind your noisemakers - rash rash rash)”
—Chag Purim song lyrics
The chance to scream “boo” at each mention of the arch-enemy Haman during the Megillah (scroll) reading of Purim is a pretty fun experience for most Jewish children.
Purim, which this year falls on March 20th, is one of the more festive Jewish holidays that celebrates the deliverance of the Jews from their enemies in the biblical Book of Esther. Purim encourages kids (and adults) to dress up in costume, have a few drinks (for adults) and in general, to cut loose and act a little crazy.
Sounds like a good holiday for Jewish children and teens with special needs, right?
The problem is many children with special needs, especially those on the autism spectrum, also have sensory integration issues. Simply put, this means that their bodies respond to sensory input differently than typically developing children. For someone with severe sensory issues, many everyday sounds, such as an electronic can opener or a squeaky shopping cart, can be perceived like nails dragging on a chalkboard.
Imagine then, what that cacophony of groggers, screams and yells in response to the 54 mentions of “Haman” can feel like to someone with sensory integration issues?
When Danny was younger, he would start screaming and crying at the very first mention of “Haman”; he would become completely inconsolable. We learned to take him out in the hall, or into a nearby room where he could still hear the excitement, but the sound was highly buffered. This was challenging when his big sister was participating in the costume parade for young kids and wanted to stay in the sanctuary for the megillah reading.
With the help of different sensory integration interventions, which included deep pressure “brushing” through the use of a special brush followed by gentle compressions to the shoulders and elbows, Danny was eventually able to tolerate louder and louder noises. In fact, now he likes to stand as close to the speakers as possible whenever amplified music is played. At age 16, he is also now able to sit through an entire megillah reading and will even ask for “more” when the reading is completed.
But what about all those kids who can’t handle a typical synagogue megillah reading (one local shul boasts of holding the “world’s noisiest megillah reading” but asks that families refrain from bringing ”cap guns or explosives”. If hearing the megillah read is considered a important mitzvah, how can all our kids participate?
In Los Angeles, Rabbi Jackie Redner & the Nes Gadol (Great Miracle) Program at Vista Del Mar held their first annual sensory-friendly pre-Purim celebration on Sunday that featured a retelling of the Purim story without any noisemakers (just “jazz hands”). This is a low-cost easy-to-implement idea that I hope many other synagogues, community centers and other Jewish organizations will start to offer in the coming years.
One of the lesser known traditions of Purim is to give either food or money to the needy, “matanot la’evyonim,” and as part of that tradition, we are supposed to give a small
donation to whoever asks without first asking to check the person’s bank statement. (My Dad has fond memories of going door-to-door on the Lower East Side in New York and saying a few Yiddish lines in verse which resulted in a sizable amount of cash by the end of the day).
In the spirit of “matanot la’evyonim” let’s make it a communal goal that sensory-friendly Purim celebrations be created in all Jewish communities so that every child will have the opportunity to hear the Purim megillah. It’s a small donation that will yield many gifts in the years to come.