It was Christmas and Chanukah and a little bit of everything at the Church In Ocean Park. And those in attendance listened in amazement to a young girl, Lexi Aaron, singing Joni Mitchell’s “Urge For Going.” When her song was over, the audience gave her a standing ovation.
“I never heard that song before,” explained Cantor Steve Puzarne, who was co-hosting the event, “until I saw her sing it in a movie, Autism: The Musical.”
Lexi Aaron and other special needs children were the guests at the Church’s Interfaith Holiday Celebration, created by Breeyah’s Inspiration Network. This first event was a collaboration between Breeyah and the Church’s Reverend Janet McKeithen, who told the Mirror: “It’s a celebration of all the holidays that come at this time of year – Chanukah, Christmas, the Solstice. It’s geared toward special needs children. I sense that there is a very large gap in services for these children and their families.”
The service began like other Sundays at the Church in Ocean Park, with the regulars coming in and hugging each other in greeting, mingling with the newcomers – children and adults – who were also greeted effusively by Reverend McKeithen.
Cantor Puzarne opened the program by playing a flute, accompanied by drum and percussion beats provided by other volunteer musicians. One of the cantor’s former Bar Mitzvah students, Quinn Lohmer, played guitar and led the congregation in singing the Jewish prayer song “Shehechiyanu.”
Puzarne assured those who did not know the Hebrew words that they could always sing “La La La.” “It’s the melody that goes up to God,” he said. “If we just make the sound, God knows what we’re singing.”
There were other songs and prayers, ranging from Vanessa Karam, who led the group in reciting a Muslim prayer, to Fidel Sanchez from El Salvador, who sang “Campanas de Belen” (Bells of Bethlehem), a traditional Hispanic Christmas song.
During a break, attendees had a choice of helping to make cookies (baked in a toaster oven) or making “maracas” out of small plastic jars filled with dried lentils. The rattling instruments proved useful later as everyone joined in for a rendition of “The Little Drummer Boy.”
Later there was a reading of the children’s story “Stone Soup,” and a woman who led the congregation in a prayer with movement, to represent the guidance of the angels: “On my right is Michael, on my left is Gabriel. In front of me is Uriel, behind me Rafael.”
Everyone took hands to dance the Hora to the traditional “Oh Chanukah Oh Chanukah.” Around the room the dancers went, managing to not step on the sound system cords (a holiday miracle).
Cantor Puzarne told the Mirror that he has been doing Breeyah services for “about six years.” His idea was to “make all houses of worship available to those of all needs and backgrounds.”
Puzarne hopes to take his services to churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship all over the Los Angeles area. He is also taking the idea to a national level, with co-sponsorships in other cities around the U.S. He wants to create a connection between the religious communities and those who work with special needs children.
At the end of the service, the congregation formed a circle and as is another tradition of the Church In Ocean Park, people “lifted up” friends and family members by mentioning their names with a wish for their recovery or betterment. And a little boy stood in the middle of the circle, making mysterious sounds. Nobody silenced him. As Cantor Puzarne had observed, the sound was enough for God to know someone was expressing joy.
Breeyah’s Inspiration Network will be doing events the second Sunday of every month at the Church In Ocean Park, 235 Hill Street in Santa Monica. The next event will be January 18, for Martin Luther King Jr. For information call 310.902.6329 or 310.399.1631.