Mich Sampson is the Director of Music at Finchley Reform Synagogue (FRS), and works with other Reform and Liberal Jewish communities to help them use music confidently in services. After FRS set up ‘Shabbat B’Yachad’, a multi-sensory and musical service aimed to be especially relevant for people with disabilities, Mich took the model to her local shul, East London and Essex Liberal Synagogue, and now co-leads a similar service there.
What was your path to doing what you do?
I only started my musical career about 10 years ago! I was partly inspired by the Jewish choral festivals directed by Stephen Glass; I knew then I wanted to work with choirs and singers. My brother is autistic and lives in a Norwood Ravenswood home, and I know it can be hard to find synagogue services that are inclusive and interesting. I was so delighted when FRS set up a service that my brother and I could enjoy together and when I heard there was nothing similar in East London we started one there (‘Shabbat Shelanu’).
Who helped you along the way?
I’ve been inspired by the model created by Rabbi Miriam Berger and Cantor Zöe Jacobs at FRS, refined over many services by lay leaders Shulamit Morris-Evans, Laura Proffitt, and David Bash. At ELELS, my co-conspirators are Zara Fryer and Rabbi Richard Jacobi, who both believe passionately in the need for this kind of service.
What have you learned along the way?
I could write a long answer to this! In summary, we’ve learned (and are still learning) about what works and what doesn’t work in an inclusive service. We’ve learned how to keep things simple, enjoyable, and creative while ensuring that our services are still clearly aimed at adults. We’ve learned that these sorts of services benefit more people than we expect, for example those people for whom a ‘usual’ Shabbat service does not work. And we’ve learned that the community truly makes the service.
Tell us an anecdote?
When my brother and I were at Shabbat B’Yachad, one of the attendees went up to the front unexpectedly as the Torah was about to be read and stood right where the Torah-reader would need to stand! The Torah-reader, rather than asking her to move, stood behind her, and helped her hold the yad (pointer) while the Torah was chanted. The congregant hummed along with her hand on the yad. I was very moved. It struck me that this sort of situation could never happen in a ‘typical’ service. It’s a testament to the team that they can take advantage of something unexpected to provide such a meaningful and validating experience.
Name a book film boxset or play you found inspiring?
I’m mostly watching light-hearted things at the moment! But I’d pick out ‘Dumplin’ (book and film) which I enjoyed recently; its message of body respect is an important one, especially for young adults.
Do you have a plan or ambition for the future?
In terms of these services, I’d like to see more synagogues offering specifically inclusive services for adults, and I’m keen to share ideas with other shuls to help them do that. In terms of personal ambition, I’m investigating ways in which I might train to be a professional Cantor.
How do you unwind?
Not much unwinding is happening at the moment as I have two small children, but I am very fond of the spa!
What hobby would you like to take up if you had the time?
I used to do amateur dramatics and I’ve promised myself that one day I’ll do a bit of that again – I was sorry to leave the world of Gilbert & Sullivan!
What would you say to someone who has just found out their child has special needs?
As the sister of someone with special needs, I’m especially interested in how the ‘typical’ siblings of a child with special needs are supported. There are some good groups aimed at supporting siblings, see for example https://www.sibs.org.uk/. I would love parents to make their children aware of these resources and help them find support outside of the family.
Who do you most admire and why?
I’m wary of labelling people who are working through their own challenges as ‘inspirational’, but I am constantly learning from friends who are dealing with depression and invisible illness, and grateful for the chance to learn how to be a better ally.
Written by: Mich Sampson