The little synagogue was packed. It was Yom Kippur, and the rabbi, the holy Baal Shem Tov, was weeping in prayer.
Men draped in shawls filled the pews, swaying silently. Women murmured the ancient liturgy, their prayer books overflowing with tears and with hope. Children watched their parents with awe, sensing that this was a special day.
Suddenly, the sublime atmosphere was cracked by a shout: Cock-a-doodle-doo! Cock-a-doodle-doo! A village boy stood in the middle of the synagogue, shouting it over and over as he raised his face heavenward.
The congregants grew enraged and moved to expel him. But the Baal Shem Tov said, “No! Leave him alone. He is to remain here among us!
“This boy is from the village. He knows nothing of the protocols of a synagogue or the procedures of prayer. But he knows it is Yom Kippur, and he wants to speak to G-d, to be heard. He has cried out in the only language he knows. And that cock-a-doodle-doo, from the heart, goes directly to G-d’s throne.”
The special needs community has for too long been marginalized in the greater Jewish community. Friendship Circle’s mission is to showcase the beauty of every soul. We know that we do not all speak the same language, but we all feel and need the same love.
At Friendship Circle, the 150 volunteers are taught to genuinely accept their special friends for who they are. Through education workshops, friendship pairings and inclusion, the volunteers and the 80 individuals with special needs get a chance to celebrate diversity and value differences.
When our volunteers stand before G-d this year and ask, “Please, G-d, accept me for who I am,” they can ask it with confidence knowing that they have taken the first step of accepting their fellows for who they are.
As a community, we need to learn the language of the soul. We each speak, look and do things differently, but we are the same. This new year, let us welcome into the communal conversation those who have no voice, or whose voice we do not easily understand.
I wish you and your family a wonderful year in 5778. May G-d look at us as we hope to look at each other and see that we are forever deserving of His blessing and love.
Rickelle New is the director of Friendship Circle of Atlanta.