by Jaime Bassman
Most stories about inclusion in the Jewish community don’t involve singing in a Baptist church, but this one does.
For the last 25 years, members from my Conservative shul Beth Am Israel have come together annually with our local counterparts from a Reform temple and a predominantly African American Baptist church to sing in fellowship as the Unity Choir. We honor the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy together for the holiday weekend, but our collaborative partnership endures throughout the year.
Singing has always played a pivotal role in my life, though it became significantly more difficult to participate in choir practices and voice lessons after my son was diagnosed along the autism spectrum 7 years ago. All of the sudden, I entered an entirely foreign, all-consuming world that revolved around intensive therapies and treatments for my little guy. At the time, I was also caring for our newborn daughter and struggling with whether to return to work after maternity leave. It was hard to imagine singing with others again, and in much the same way, finding a Jewish community for our family was not on our radar screen.
Over time, we were finally ready to search for and commit to a synagogue community that would embrace both our quirky son and our highly spirited daughter. We have been fortunate to find a place that understands my son’s strengths (he spotted the ‘missing Nun’ in the Ashrei prayer after a brief cursory glance, which positively stunned our Rabbi). Hebrew school has always been a challenge, for him and for us, so we have always looked for less traditional (and ultimately more meaningful) ways of supplementing his formal Jewish education.
A few months ago, I asked him if he wanted to participate in Unity Choir with me. After all, he loved to sing, and there were only 4 rehearsals. He responded with a resounding “yes” and a huge hug. Our cantor was supportive. We were ready.
From the first rehearsal on, my son charmed the other women in the Soprano section as well as the song leaders. He studied the song sheets, but more importantly, he studied the social cues in his environment. He knew he needed to be in unison in order to create a harmonious experience- and being in unison doesn’t come naturally to him. Many people in the choir came up to me throughout the rehearsals and noted how happy they were to have him with us- including a woman with an older boy with autism.
When it came time to sit in our places at the service, wearing our ‘Sunday best’ and carrying identical black binders full of music, my eyes welled up. My son was incredible. He followed everyone else’s lead, even sitting and clapping during the pastor’s (very, very) long sermon. His pitch may not have always been perfect, but his ruach carried across the room.
It was truly fitting that the service ended with everyone’s arms linked, singing, “We Shall Overcome.” Indeed.
Jaime Bassman, MS, OTR/L is a pediatric occupational therapist with over a decade of experience in early intervention, preschool and school-based settings including autistic support and emotional support programs. She is able to provide modifications and strategies that support attention span, behavior and sensory processing as well as reading and writing in Hebrew. On-site individual or generalized consultation sessions are available to improve outcomes for students with special needs at synagogues throughout the Delaware Valley. Don’t forget to like Azar: Occupational Therapy Supports for Jewish Learning on Facebook to receive more information and resources.