For many Jewish people, going to the synagogue is an important part of their lives. Visiting the synagogue can bring both a feeling of belonging to a community and foster spiritual meaning. However, for many people, visiting the synagogue can be overwhelming to the senses. A sensory-friendly synagogue helps!
Synagogues are often sensory-rich environments. Sensory-rich environments are sensory experiences that stimulate many senses. While many people enjoy sensory-rich experiences, they cause sensory overload for others.
Jordyn Friedman, an occupational therapy student and Jewish community member, has provided helpful insights into how to create a more accessible and inclusive synagogue for this article.
Go to the synagogue during less busy hours
Avoid crowds of people by going to a synagogue service during less busy hours. Moreover, ask the synagogue when they have services that are less busy. And, encourage your synagogue to offer services at alternative times, too. Fewer people helps avoid the stress of crowds, but helps people enjoy a peaceful service.
Ask for a sensory-friendly service
You are likely surprised by the number of people who experience sensory sensitivities and sensory overload. Sensory differences are more common than you might think! Research, “Identification of Sensory Processing and Integration Symptom Clusters: A Preliminary Study” complete in 2017 by Miller et al. estimates that 5% to 16.5% of the general population have symptoms associated with sensory processing challenges, and these estimates are higher for people with autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder 1. Making your synagogue sensory-friendly helps many, many people.
When creating a sensory friendly service, it is important to consider many aspects of a service that can be overstimulating for different people. This can include:
- no music or soft music
- no bright or flashing lights
- comfortable seating options
- scent-free space
- provide noise-cancelling ear muffs
- limit attendees
- encourage people to take breaks
A sensory-friendly synagogue service helps people feel more comfortable. Advocate for one at your synagogue.
Create a sensory friendly room in the synagogue
Another alternative is to create a sensory-friendly room. This room may include the following:
- noise cancelling earmuffs
- glass to observe the service
- different seating options
Some people are more comfortable in a separate space, that is smaller. A smaller space can reduce the impact on the senses and the number of sensory experiences to adjust to.
Ask for sensory friendly alternative programs
Many synagogues often offer alternative programming, in addition to, or in replace of, a typical service. These programs offer education and teachings of Jewish thought and perspective. They also can reduce the sensory experience compared to a typical service. Alternative programs can be a safe space for people who experience sensory sensitivities and find aspects of a synagogue overwhelming. Alternative programming can offer the same teachings that are taught in the service. However, they can allow frequent breaks for example. Moreover, they can be paced to each person’s needs.
There is often social pressure to stay in the service. Nonetheless, it is important to feel comfortable taking breaks and for leadership to encourage people to take breaks. A short break to go to the toilet, visit the sensory-friendly room or take some deep breaths outside, are all ideas that can help. A break can be just the solution to enjoy the rest of the service.
Attend a sensory-friendly synagogue to help manage sensory sensitivity or sensory overload. With these tips, advocate for changes to allow all Jewish community members to attend synagogue in comfort and to be included!
Finally, interested in other sensory friendly blog posts? Check out the following blogs.
- A Sensory Friendly Birthday Party in 10 Easy Steps
- How to Have a Sensory-Friendly Canada Day Celebration
- Make Halloween Sensory Friendly for your Child
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Siobhan Wakeham expects to graduate Master’s of Science in Occupational Therapy form Queen’s University in 2023. She graduated from McMaster where she completed my Bachelor’s degree in Cognitive Science and Linguistics. She loves learning about how people’s sensory experiences can impact their daily functioning and how it can impact their enjoyment and engagement in their favourite activities. She is excited to graduate and apply my knowledge to enhance little minds and lives.
Jordyn Friedman expects to graduate with a Master’s of Science in Occupational Therapy form Queen’s University in 2023. She also graduated in 2021 with a Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Psychology, also from Queen’s. She loves being Jewish and sharing the traditions that she loves participating in with my family and friends and cannot wait to apply her “OT lens” to new and old Jewish traditions!
- Miller, L. J., Schoen, S. A., Mulligan, S., & Sullivan, J. (2017). Identification of Sensory Processing and Integration Symptom Clusters: A Preliminary Study. Occupational Therapy International, 2017, 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1155/2017/2876080