I have always looked forward to the Passover seder: a long, beautifully prepared meal, storytelling, ritual, reflecting on freedom and gratitude, children laughing and putting on a play, and searching for the afikoman. The seders of my childhood have imprinted fond and lasting memories of my grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles and friends.
Over the last 10 years, since my daughter was 3, my excitement and love for the seder has been accompanied by growing anxiety, worry and mild pessimism. My daughter has significant special needs, and I worry about the seder. I wonder how disruptive she’ll be and whether she’ll be able to sit for so long, and I question whether she’ll get anything out of the seder. While my husband and I can engage her and continually feed her snacks, all the while assuring her that the meal is coming, my ability to be present at the table and take in what I love evaporates. One of the reasons it’s so hard for my daughter to be a part of the seder is that a typical Hagaddah is meaningless to her.
But I have renewed hope this year; we finally have a Hagaddah that children with special needs can use, as well as the entire family. “The Gateways Haggadah: A Seder for the Whole Family,” published by Gateways: Access to Jewish Education and Behrman House, is filled with photos, picture symbols and words. For children who are non-verbal, pictures and symbols are their key to comprehension and expression. Those of us parenting children with special needs frequently travel with special seats, specific forks, spoons and cups, as well as cloths for messy eating and drooling, not to mention medication for seizures or other medical issues. The reminder that our child is different is continually highlighted at group gatherings. How lovely it will be to set a table with the same Hagaddah on each plate!
I recognize that my daughter will still need someone to assist her in following along, to convince her that food is coming, to feed her and perhaps take a break from the table when the disruptions are too much. But chances are that she, and others with special needs, will experience a greater sense of belonging during this year’s seder. And perhaps most important, everyone else, for those few hours of being together, can step out of their “normal” and co-exist with or step into the world of a child with special needs.
Two of my children are actually featured in the photos in the Haggadah, and I’m sure this will help keep them engaged. While I’m not sure my daughter will understand or appreciate that kids all over the world can use this resource, my other children can. For them, being involved in the creation of this important book is a meaningful way for them to reach out to kids with special needs, and their siblings. The four children in this Haggadah are represented through photos: one who is excited, one who is upset, one who is confused and one who is overwhelmed. The photos of actual children, descriptions of how they feel, ways in which their behavior expresses those feelings and how parents help them will resonate with all families. This Haggadah is a powerful and beautiful way to bring the beauty of Passover and a sense of freedom into the homes of families where it has often been a struggle.
Order copies of “The Gateways Haggadah: A Seder for the Whole Family” here.
Cindy Kaplan is a family therapist and PCI Certified Parent Coach. Her passion is helping families understand each other and helping parents find their authentic voices and joys in parenting. She is continually humored, challenged and humbled by her three children, who embrace her long-term experiment called “motherhood.”