How do you spell G-d?

Everyone worships differently. This is a truth that is hard and fast—regardless of whether you worship within organized religion, view the world through agnostic eyes, but find yourself worshipful of nature, or the perfect souffle, or the perfect powder day. These days, leading up to Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year, I find myself contemplating my relationship to G-d and to organized religion. I’ve always been “all-in,” and had a strong social investment in the Jewish community, even serving on the board of my synagogue. And I’ve relied upon the social conventions that Judiasm affords–a way to spell G-d. A way to comprehend life’s blessings and tragedies.

Where do you find G-d?

Today, as I contemplate paying a shiva call when my cousin and his wife return from the burial of her mother, I am thinking of what the ritual of a lay-led (likely by me, maybe by my cousin) minyan will look like to their friends from other faith backgrounds. I am taken back to the first time I led a shiva minayan, for my best friend’s grandfather, Poppy, who was a special friend to me, and whose memory I very much wanted to honor. I wanted to do that, mainly, because it was a way to comfort my friend–who had a magical connection to Poppy. And there were, in our teens, no words for grief. Just a visceral understanding of loss.

We worship in a foreign language—Hebrew. But for some people, any worship is a foreign language. And for some, it’s because they have special needs, and their abilities don’t conform to the typical worship setup.

The very same friend whose grandfather’s shiva service I once led is someone who finds ways to decode Judiasm, in particular, for kids with special needs. And I thought of her as I read my friend Ellen’s blog today. She wrote of what it’s like to consider worship with Max, her special-powers kid.

And all I could think was, Ellen! Go to Brookline! Check out Gateways: Access to Jewish Education!
And I wanted to say it in public—because I think we can all benefit from knowing about the challenges presented in special-needs education in a religious setting, and the advances groups like Gateways are making. A place where, basically, it doesn’t matter if you spell G-d any special way—Gateways gives kids the means to figure it out on their own terms.

However we feel about G-d, however we feel about observing holidays, I will find some comfort in having a pro-forma way to communicate my sympathy to my cousin, his wife, their daughter. In some ways, organized religion allows those of us who don’t always know “the right thing to do” the space to figure it out, the structure to follow, so that the love can be shared, multiplied. Oh, yes, and we bring food. I had to organize a Signup Genius to corral the edible well-wishes that all of my cousins’ friends want to bring.

I’ll ask this: Where do you worship? What does ritual mean to you? How do you spell G-d? What needs do you wish your family’s congregation met? From special to spectacular, I’d love to hear about it….



  1. Ellen · September 24, 2011

    Hello, dear friend! Sorry to hear about the death in your famiily.

    Thank you so much for letting me know about Gateways. I may just send the person from my synagogue who contacted me to check it out, as clearly, my synagogue doesn’t seem to have much of a clue on including kids with special needs. I still may switch. A larger synagogue in our area does have programs.

    I was brought up to spell G-d just like that. I am very much looking forward to this year in temple, much to contemplate.

    I miss you! Hugs to all.


  2. a reader · October 3, 2011

    I have a special needs kid and if you’re ready, I’m happy to give you my opinion of the topic you brought up. I think it’s a total waste of time taking kids like these to church or temple or giving them any kind of religious schooling. Personally, I think special needs kids have so much to learn and there’s so little time that it shouldn’t be wasted on things that won’t help in any practical way, and will likely just cause more confusion. Religion should be more of a luxury item. When everything else in your life sorts out nicely, you might as well take on some religion, if that’s what you want. My high-functioning autistic boy actually gets very good grades, has an incredible memory, is an awesome musician, and is one of the most popular kids in school. With all that being said, he still has a ton to learn about the world. Going to temple will just take valuable time away from that. He loves watching videos and playing on the computer and he probably does that about as much as any normal kid. He likes rereading books that he enjoys, and outside of all this, we work with on things to help him along. We help with school homework and with his facebook homework. Yes, I assign him facebook homework every night. He needs help socializing and FB is perfect for that. His friends have no idea that I sit next to him and help him keep up his end of a conversation. We often talk about music, ride bikes, and engage in various sports. I basically teach him how to be a normal boy. Growing up brings enough confusing things to his life that hebrew school would simply exacerbate that. I spend a lot of time trying to make sense out of things that don’t make sense to him and religion is about as non-sensical as things come. Strictly speaking, it doesn’t make sense, but religious people don’t care. I can’t afford to spend his time trying to get him to accept something so abstract. He, like many other special needs kids, is very literal. He’d probably have major doubts about the whole thing and quite honestly, no one in any church or temple knows any more than he does about the subject. It’s never been more than guesswork anyway and kids like him deserve better than that with their time. I always feel so bad for autistic kids who get dragged to church because their time could be so much better spent. As for the preferred spelling of god, I wouldn’t dream of wasting his valuable time by trying to convince him to write a word without a vowel. He’d take exception to that. Time would be so much better spent, for example, in guiding him how to answer when friends ask how his weekend was.


  3. Bari Nan · October 5, 2011

    I’m humbled—as usual. I consider myself a believer, a religious person. But I also have a very broad definition of “religious.” To my anonymous commenter, I will say this: please don’t take offense that I find a certain holiness in your respect for your child, for your family’s “operating system,” and the value you place on creating a world that functions for your child. Will you be offended if I find some spirituality in your pragmatism? I understand if you don’t see it–and I agree with you, too. As a religious person, I don’t care that it doesn’t make sense. But I’m blessed with the ability to parse that stuff. Your son’s ability to see the concrete, to appreciate the tangible, is something I don’t always have. There’s a yin and yang to my insistence on that dash-instead-of-a-vowel, and his likely insistence on the vowel, for its correctness.

    I don’t know how I’d explain it to a child with special needs. And I have plenty of friends who opted out of traditional religious rituals and observances for their special-needs kids, even as their typical children celebrated a bat mitzvah, or took First Communion. I’ve been awed by the work my friend Nancy does at Gateways. I’ve seen the value in both approaches. And, I want to thank you for sharing your experience here. I think it’s valuable—and I think your approach to parenting, all in all, is what we all hope we are doing: meeting the specific needs of our kids.


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