A Special Book for Special Needs

In 2020, OU Press and Koren Publishers issued a very unique book written by Rabbi Dr. Benjy Leibowitz ’05YUHS, ’10YC, ’12A, ’13R and Michael Adler ’10YC: the Koren Yachad Siddur, one of the first, if not the first, siddur authored to meet the spiritual needs of those with developmental challenges.

The idea for the book came out of work they were doing for YACHAD, The National Jewish Council for Disabilities. “Michael was overseeing programming for the older division of New York Yachad,” said Leibowitz, “and I was overseeing programming in some of the Yachad chapters outside of the New York area (Dallas, Houston, Detroit, Cleveland and Columbus) as well as directing Morasha Yachad.”

“There was a Yachad member with special needs, Jacob Gross, in Detroit who was very connected to davening but due to his challenges was still using a children’s siddur because there was nothing on the market appropriate for him,” explained Adler. As Jacob approached his bar mitzvah, he and his family asked Leibowitz and Adler if Yachad might be interested in creating a siddur that would meet the needs of Jacob and people like him.

“We loved the idea,” said Leibowitz, “and I immediately walked into Dr. Jeff Lichtman’s office, the international director of Yachad at the time, and without much convincing he said he loved the idea as well.” That day, Adler and Leibowitz started brainstorming ideas and planning the project.

“We had to take some time to find our voice and initially worked with a larger team to narrow down how we would go about this project, ensuring that it would be meaningful for the special needs community while still containing all content of a typical siddur,” explained Adler. “Once we got the concept solidified, Benjy and I worked very closely with the team at OU Press who guided us and interfaced with Koren Publishers since neither of us had any experience in the publishing world.”

According to the publisher, the siddur “features easy-to-read conceptual English translation and commentary focused on fundamental concepts of tefilla that bring the text alive. Ease of navigation is enhanced by the prominent marking of critical sections of prayer, color coding of the commentary and responsive sections between the Leader and congregation, and insertion of icons to provide pictorial instruction of actions embedded in tefillah.”

 

Page of icon keys and color keys that designate when to perform certain actions and page locations of important tefilot

 

It would not be a stretch at all to say that the creation and success of the Koren Yachad Siddur has its roots not only in the request from the Gross family for their son but also in the very lives of the two men who brought the project together.

They both grew up in similar observant households and had similar educational backgrounds, grounding them in the world of Torah values and practices. They had slightly different reasons for coming to YU—for Adler, it involved a transfer from the University of Maryland in search of a more frum [pious] lifestyle, while for Leibowitz, his family had such a strong link to YU as teachers and students that “I never considered a second option”—but they each found YU a wonderful place to be, full of all the shiurim and classes and teachers and rebbeim that they could ever desire.

In reviewing their time at YU, each man found themselves enlarged intellectually, spiritually and culturally by their experiences. For Adler, “the friendships and connections to great teachers gave me many opportunities to expand my learning, which was certainly instrumental in creating this siddur. Without the experience in the Limudei Kodesh [Torah study] along with the discipline of following a dual curriculum, I certainly would not have had the ability to do this work.”

Leibowitz acknowledged that YU prepared him well religiously and academically by giving him the grounding to pursue both semicha [rabbinic ordination] at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and, several years after that, doctoral work at the Rutgers Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology. At Rutgers, he wrote a dissertation on teaching methodologies of prayer based on a lifelong passion for understanding tefillah [praying]. “While in YU, tefillah was powerful. Standing alongside gedolim [great men] such as Rav Yitzchak Cohen and Rav Meyer Twerski leaves a strong imprint.”

According to the two men, the responses to the publication have been overwhelmingly positive. “Many individuals with special needs and their families have been very excited to have access to this new siddur,” noted Adler. “We wanted to make sure this siddur was meaningful for everyone regardless of ability, and from what I have heard, we have hit that target.”

Leibowitz has had similar experiences, receiving many communications from Yachad participants and their parents as well as Yachad staff regarding how much they enjoyed and gained from the siddur. “Perhaps more surprisingly, I’ve heard from family, friends and strangers without any form of special need that the siddur has had major impact on the quality of their tefillos,” Leibowitz observed. “People say that the siddur has made tefillah more accessible, more relatable, and easier to navigate. These were all goals we had in creating the siddur, and it’s been incredibly heartwarming and satisfying to see the intended results.”

But life post-publication does go on as well. Leibowitz maintains a private practice as a clinical psychologist in Springfield, New Jersey, while also continuing as a clinical supervisor for Yachad summer programs during their summer season while living in Fairlawn, New Jersey, with his wife, Shifra, and four children. Adler, who went on to get a master’s in public health from Rutgers University, is working for a telemedicine company focusing on new program development and clinical quality assurance; “over 20 million people have gotten tested for COVID through our platforms,” he pointed out, noting with a touch of understatement that “we have been kept very busy during the pandemic.” When not wrestling with the pandemic, he lives in Queens with his wife, Neema ’12S, and their young son.

Adler speaks for them both when he looks back upon the significance of the project and recalls it with a mixture of both awe and humility. “Seeing such a massive project, which we had no real experience in, go from being an idea to something that is published and in people’s hands around the world has truly been inspiring,” he noted. “We hope that this can be a spark that pushes people to take a leap and make an impact if they see something that they can do to better the lives of others.”