Bringing Sanctuary Home by Karen Webber Gilat
It is Friday night. The dining room table is set. My adult son enters the living room with his hands over his ears and humming loudly. He is agitated and he is autistic. People with autism may have difficulty communicating and interacting. They may also exhibit repetitive behaviors. At the same moment, my teenage daughter who is hyperactive and also on the spectrum repeatedly asks when we will light the Sabbath candles. This time, I say now.
Y’hi or, va-y’hi or. ‘Let there be light’ and there is. Sabbath candlelight transforms a house to a
home, an ordinary table into an altar. Appetizers in hand, we settle in for a Torah story. People
with autism love routine. Thus, I always start at the beginning.
‘God created heaven and earth’. Blue is pulled from blue, separating water from sky. Stars take
their places in the firmament. My kids embellish the story as I tell it. This allows them to
participate in the story, sometimes physically. It is also the best way for them to understand and
remember it. Details of each day of creation abound. Individuals with autism relish detail. On the
seventh day God rested, “whew” and we three literally fall down.
“Before we settled in the Promised Land” I continue, “we used to carry our tent of meeting with
us through the desert, setting it up and breaking it down. That is why when we were done
wandering ,the first thing we did is build a more permanent house for God to dwell in. A
Mikdash, a holy space. Inside, there is gold and silver beaten and smooth, blue and purple
gemstones, and a rainbow of yarn”. Time is hallowed by God while space, the tabernacle, is
consecrated by Moses.
Each individual brings something to contribute to the tabernacle, as her heart moves her. I ask
my kids what gifts they would bring to give to this sanctuary. My son and daughter don’t
comprehend the value of money. They cannot go to a store and just buy something. For them,
this is an emerging skill and they need supervision. Their gifts will be gifts of the heart. My son
says,”I would bring…” and he does his cow impression. My daughter asks me what she should
bring. I answer, “I think you can bring what you always bring, questions.” She adds that she will
also bring her unicorn.
After dinner, we do the week in review. We also say what we are grateful for. Then we compile a
mental list of what we will do over the weekend. The Shabbat tablecloth is decorated with their
handprints. Their paintings, drawings and collages become laminated placemats they eat off of.
By surrounding them with the work of their hands, I remind them of all the gifts they bring to the
world. Through telling stories in which they can participate, I hope to further connect them to
Jewish time and Jewish space, to their heritage.
A sanctuary is a place of safety and refuge. It is also a place of joy and creativity. Hallow your
space with Shabbat today.
Karen Webber Gilat is a cantor, a teaching artist and chaplain with JSSA (Jewish Social Service Agency). She is the founder of WING&PRAYER which prepares unique learners for Bar and Bat Mitzvah.