Hazzan Steven Stoehr had this to say about his HUGS program for people with special needs.
My awareness of the world of disabilities started when I was quite young as my mother has needed to champion obstacles as a woman with limited use of her right side and mobility.
As an adult living in Chicago, I became aware of the special needs community through Camp Tikvah and the students in Keshet with which my children shared integrated classrooms as students at Solomon Schechter Day School. I have come to know of other such educational, recreational and camping programs but the issue never overtly entered through the front door of my synagogue.
Five years ago a friend inquired what we did for the special needs community for High Holidays. I sheepishly said "nothing, why would we? What aren’t we doing that needs to be done"? That simple question was the lynchpin to what we do now.
I began to explore the existing synagogue programs and came up empty. I did find one such beacon of exemplary work all the way in NYC at Rodeph Sholom. Rabbi Ben Spratt was quite generous with his advice and materials asking me only to pay it forward. I enlisted a young talented program designer Alex Weinberg in NJ and he requested only the same thing of me for his time and expert help.
My synagogue clergy team was supportive as was the Board of Trustees. I assembled a team of spiritually generous volunteers and into the proverbial pool we dove.
HUGS became our acronym for Healthy, Understanding, Growing Spaces.
We had a logo designed, the team which began small began to grow and we initiated our first High Holiday service. The need from within our synagogue was minimal (or at least that is what the response to our efforts seem to intimate) and so we opened the doors of Congregation Beth Shalom as wide as we could and welcomed everyone we could find. We were enthralled with the turnout. This led to Hanukah, Purim, and a Chocolate Passover Seder. The next year Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Shabbatot and Shavuot as well. The creative minds of our HUGS team were inexhaustible.
Rabbi Michael Schwab, of Beth El in Highland Park, inquired as to whether our congregations could partner and they joined in our work.
We then opened up the partnership to more communities and today we have 9 congregations, Reform and Conservative sharing holidays and ideas and resources. We also were the recipient of a generous support gift of $10k from a community philanthropist. Our dream is to expand this beyond our North Shore boundaries and create a Southern Campus of congregations that would join our HUGS Partnership. There is already talk amongst my Cantorial and Jewish music colleagues of creating a Combined Choir for this community.
I am proud to say that my congregation also employs one young man with special needs in partnership with Jewish Vocational Services. At Beth Shalom we have begun a gesture of inclusion, which we pray will not be seen only as a gesture but as a change in our cultural norms, and that is to hang two mezuzot on many doors in the congregation; one traditionally on the upper third of doorpost and one lower for accessibility by those in wheelchairs or otherwise unable to reach higher due to any number of issues.
Hazzan Steven Stoehr serves Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook, IL.