For Arthur Spiegel, it was not enough that 25 Jewish adults with special needs joined together for a post-Chanuka luncheon, complete with music and gift bags, at Congregation Beth Shalom Tuesday, Dec. 11.
Yes, the festive atmosphere allowed those with intellectual and developmental disabilities the opportunity to celebrate a Jewish holiday with other Jews, but Spiegel, a volunteer with the Western Pennsylvania Auxiliary for Exceptional People, was also concerned with those who were not there.
“Our numbers our dwindling,” he said. “There are others out there that we just don’t know of, and we’d like to reach out so that they can celebrate these occasions with us.”
Spiegel, Rabbi Eli Seidman, and several other volunteers organize celebrations three times a year for special needs Jews: during Sukkot, Chanuka and following Passover.
Seidman and other volunteers also visit these adults once a month at institutions such as the Allegheny Valley School, a residential therapy program for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and the Verland Foundation.
But the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) prohibits, Allegheny Valley School, Verland Foundation and like institutions from releasing personal information, including religion, no matter what the motivation of the request. It therefore becomes a challenge to identify Jews in these programs.
“These people are already in programs,” Seidman said. “We just want to inject some Jewish content.”
Founded by Rabbi Leib and Pearl Heber in the late 1970s, the Western Pennsylvania Auxiliary for Exceptional People began by delivering homemade kosher sandwiches to Jews living in nine different institutions around western Pennsylvania. At its peak, in the 1980s, about 400 special needs Jews, who would otherwise be leading a mostly secular life, were touched by the Auxiliary.
Since Heber’s death in 1987, the Auxiliary has been operating on a much smaller scale, but Spiegel would like to see it expand again.
“It’s one of the most gratifying and satisfying mitzvas we can perform as a Jewish community,” he said.
The celebrations are always held at Beth Shalom, which donates use of its space, Spiegel said, but the group is well-funded by private donors and the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
At the post-Chanuka lunch, Seidman spoke about the history of the holiday, and music was provided by volunteer Sally Schweitzer on the piano and Cantor Ben Rosner on guitar.
Want to help?
To reach the Auxiliary with information on an exceptional person, email Rabbi Eli Seidman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)