Where to find a Hanukkah celebration for people with special needs

Image by Mike from Pixabay

In Palm Beach County, holiday events are a dime a dozen. Throw a rock and you’ll hit a celebration, usually with loud music, food and activities for families.

And that’s wonderful! Unless — you’re neurodivergent.

One local organization is tackling that need for Hanukkah: The Palm Beach Synagogue’s Project Connect is throwing a Hanukkah party for people with special needs, from 5 to 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 19 at the synagogue at 120 North County Road in Palm Beach.

“We realized it’s very, very important to offer such an event,” said Palm Beach Synagogue Outreach Rabbi Leibel Shmotkin, who said that the event is open to people of all beliefs. “There is obviously a big need for this in our community, and we are very honored and happy to be able to offer this for these children and adults who otherwise would be celebrating at home.”

Headlining the event is a performance by Dr. Laz and The Sensations, a musical group with all non-verbal members. There also will be a Menorah lighting, Hanukkah arts and crafts, face painting and balloon making, and a dinner with doughnuts and latkes. Admission is free. An RSVP is required by calling Shmotkin at 747-666-7401 or emailing projectconnect@palmbeachsynagogue.org.

“It’s going to be really special,” Shmotkin said.

Finding holiday events for people with special needs can be difficult. While there are sensory Santa events at local malls, few venues offer a full-blown holiday event for people with special sensory needs in mind.

I’ve learned this more and more as I try to find an event suitable for my 4-year-old son, who is on the autism spectrum. When I tried to take him to a fall story time event in October, he was so overwhelmed that he continually retreated to what I think he considers his safe space: a bathroom. I’ve tried to find an event for us that would be suitable for Christmas. Thankfully, a parent in his preschool class is having a party this weekend that offers sensory play.

While my family doesn’t celebrate Hanukkah, I think it’s important to stop and appreciate just how special Project Connect really is to the special needs community in Palm Beach County. They have events every few weeks, with a full calendar available on the Palm Beach Synagogue website. They’re working hard to create connections for people who otherwise might not have that outlet.

The program is especially meaningful for Shmotkin, whose mother runs an organization for children with special needs. “I have a passion for this,” he said.

People come from around Palm Beach County to attend Project Connect events in Palm Beach, he said. Between 15 and 20 families usually attend the events, and he hopes it will continue to grow.

“God willing,” he said. “We know this is a need and we’re excited to see it reach more people.”

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