By Sarah Sultman, Co-Founder Gesher School.
On Wednesday June 15th Gesher was delighted to welcome The Chief Rabbi to the school for a very special Chaggigat Siddur (a special presentation when children receive their first Jewish prayer book). The excitement was palpable, from both the staff and all of the pupils.
Chaggigat Siddur is very much a right of passage in our community schools, a junior coming of age experience. I can remember my own in 1984, aged 8, decorating my blue Singer’s siddur (prayer book) with watermelon stickers and pieces of felt, and I can remember my daughters; the colourful shiny wrapping paper we selected together to cover their new siddurs. This ceremony has always been a part of the school year, and it continues to this day, because there is a point in a child’s life when having learnt teffilot (prayers) in the classroom they are given their own siddur. It is a statement from the older generation of teachers and parents to students that says ‘Your prayers are yours and relevant to you, G-d is there for you for you to have a relationship with, and so now you have reached an age when it is yours to own’. I still, to this day, have my Singer’s siddur with the watermelon.
At Gesher, students are supported in their communication, learning with widgits as part of PECS (picture exchange communication system). For those unfamiliar with the term, widgits are symbols. We use symbols everywhere – often without us realising. Examples would be road signs, or signs in public spaces highlighting everything from danger, to cafes to toilets. Airports use them because they are universal – by looking at a sign or a picture anyone from anywhere can be communicated to quickly and simply. For those with communication and learning delays, widgits pictorial symbols allow them to understand the information being presented to them especially when they used alongside PECS which involves the physical exchange of pictures to communicate with another person for the purpose of requesting or commenting.
All children universally start their learning communication process with pictures and symbols with the anticipation and prediction of a timeline by which they will transfer to the written word and no longer need the pictures to help them understand. But for those with communication, speech and language delays and learning difficulties that timeline can be a lot longer; and, for some, written words will never be an accessible route to understanding or communicating.
Siddur Lakol, meaning ‘Siddur for Everyone’, is the first prayer book of its kind. It is a thoughtful, inclusive prayer book that has been designed with the unprecedented collaboration of community organisations that want to make teffilah accessible to all. Consideration has been given the design from the colours used, the font size (making it easier to read), the Hebrew has all been transliterated into English so that anyone can follow spoken Hebrew prayer, but perhaps most uniquely the whole siddur has been fully translated into Widgit symbols enabling the user to fully understand their dialogue with G-d through prayer.
What is beautiful about Siddur Lakol is that it is not just aimed at those who learn differently and are differently able – all mainstream children can use it. In conversations with the United Synagogue who commissioned this new version for their synagogues and schools we talked about how wonderful it would be if all young children started with this siddur. That way, as the majority who grow up and will no longer need it, they will have received their first education in an inclusive way that will enable them to grow up into more thoughtful children and adults. For those with learning needs it is the first time they will have a dedicated prayer book that they can access and engage with. And as a friend said to me – what about all the people who cannot read Hebrew and struggle with what is being said – perhaps they too could dip into Siddur Lakol and find that a service begins to hold more meaning for them too.
Prayer provides routine and structure. It is personal, it can be meditative and reflective, it can be joyful and uplifting and it can be comforting. It would be wonderful if Siddur Lakol might inspire other faith based communities to think about their own prayer books and resources to be more inclusive to all.
My hope is that students at Gesher treasure their siddur the same way I did mine, and that all of their prayers be listened to and answered.