I sent my daughter to school on Rosh Hashanah. I’m still struggling with that decision, but less than I thought.
We belong to an active Conservative congregation, and we are among the Shabbat “regulars” crowd. If we are in town on Saturday, we go to synagogue. Our children grew up in that building. While our own families live in another state, the folks at synagogue have become like family to us—grandparents, aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, cousins, nieces, and nephews. We share in simchas and sadnesses. It is our community.
A month before our daughter, Sofia, was born, the ladies from the synagogue threw a “Baby Seder” for me. This child was going to be special. This child was going to have Down syndrome, and the synagogue community wanted us to know right from the start that Sofia was going to be part of the community.
And she has been. Shabbat mornings, she knows the routine. She settles with her dolly on the children’s play rug in the corner of the sanctuary. She sorts through the large box of children’s books always available. She plays with the other kids. And when it is time for Adon Olam, she races to the bimah, grabs the rabbi’s hand, and happily sits and sings along. She dances during V’shamru, jostles the other kids for her place at the hand-washing bowl, and celebrates Shabbat joyously. Then, she races to the social hall to help herself to some lunch, and when she’s done, she clears plates and helps bring things to the kitchen.
She is very much part of the synagogue community.
But then, the High Holidays happen. Instead of the cozy 125 regulars in the sanctuary, the double-doors are open and there are 900 people in the social hall and sanctuary. Many of the regulars move out to a tent in the parking lot, which also seats 400 people. And on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the tent has the Rabbi Emeritus (the extraordinary Rabbi Harold Kushner) and a different Cantor (Joel Sussman, from Safam—we are not lacking for talent here!).
For Sofia, this is just too much. Too different.
In the school wing, the halls and rooms are packed with families. Mostly unfamiliar families. Different teachers. It’s mayhem, and awfully difficult to process.
We try. Every year, we try. For a long time, Sofia was very content to go to babysitting, because she loves playing with the toys in the preschool. But as she’s gotten older, we’ve made more effort to have her attend the children’s services. Be with peers. Engage in the holiday.
Every year, it’s a miserable failure.
She struggles to leave the tent. She struggles to leave the children’s services. She wants to play with the Barbie playhouse in the preschool room. She ends up sitting on the steps to the (locked) playground, tossing wood chips into the fence. This year, she inched her way around the whole fence, until she ended up in the woods and got stuck and Daddy had to go get her. Instead of listening to the sermon, I ended up walking down the street with her to play at the community rec center for a bit, and to get away from the mayhem.
Running after her is not conducive to an excellent prayer experience.
We tag team: My husband, my sister-in-law, my sons, my friends, and I all take turns making sure she’s safe and not disruptive. But it’s exhausting.
I love High Holidays. I used to be a cantorial soloist for a small reform congregation nearby, and for 16 years, I spent my summers delving deep into the liturgy, preparing and learning and practicing. I love the music of the holidays, the stirring words of the piyyutim.
So last year, I tried something different. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I sent Sofia back to school.
I have never in my life gone to school on Rosh Hashanah. I never thought I would send my own children in. But for Sofia, the regular routine of her school is much more beneficial to her than the sensory overload of the holidays at synagogue. And it means I get to pray, pay attention, listen, and breathe.
As a special needs mama, I walk a fine line between wanting to fit in and wanting what is best for my family—not just best for Sofia, but best for me, her dad, and her brothers, too. Hopefully, this will work. And on Shabbat, we will be back with the Shabbat regulars again, for a more accessible opportunity to feel God’s sheltering love.