Atlanta’s Truly Special Seder

Atlanta’s Truly Special Seder

Shearith Israel prepares to host the 22nd annual celebration for adults with special needs March 18.

Leah R. Harrison

Leah Harrison is a reporter and copy editor for the Atlanta Jewish Times.

Marla Rosenberg poses with her PALs, Rachel Nelkin and Dylan Oakes at the 2017 Special Seder at Shearith Israel. Oakes says their time together is "incredibly rewarding" and "the favorite part of my week."
Marla Rosenberg poses with her PALs, Rachel Nelkin and Dylan Oakes at the 2017 Special Seder at Shearith Israel. Oakes says their time together is "incredibly rewarding" and "the favorite part of my week."

Just as it implies a thorough housecleaning and the coming of spring, the approach of Passover tells adults with special needs and their caretakers it’s time for the Special Seder at Congregation Shearith Israel.

As they have the past 21 years, Rachael Rosenberg, Arlene Koslow, their families and devoted volunteers provide Special Seder guests a full meal and seder experience. The event is open to adults with disabilities and their caretakers and is free.

About 15 people attended the original event in 1997; last year the Special Seder accommodated approximately 100 adults. They came by minibus from Annandale Village, in specially outfitted minivans and in cars with blue-and-white parking permits dangling from rearview mirrors. They came by foot, wheelchair and walker. They came with family members, PALs, caretakers, friends, and, last year, even one special guide dog.

Each setting has a “special” seder plate.

Adam Pomeranz, the president and CEO of Annandale Village, a residential community for adults with developmental disabilities or acquired brain injuries, said: “My folks look forward to it every year. They start asking several months beforehand, ‘Has Rachael sent the date yet?'”

He and Annandale residents first attended the Special Seder in 2005, and it is now an annual tradition. His daughter, Lily, 9, and son, Evan, 7, have joined him “ever since they were in utero,” Pomeranz said. “This seder, in my opinion, is one of the best functions for adults with developmental disabilities in the entire Atlanta community. … Everyone is welcome.”

Pomeranz co-chairs the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta‘s Jewish Abilities Alliance.

While attending my first Special Seder last year, I was struck by the magnitude of the undertaking. I tried to think of ways to shortcut the Herculean operation — maybe skip the soup; serve the gefilte fish with the salad; serve one fewer vegetable — but it occurred to me that every painstaking step, from matzah ball soup to aromatic chicken to mouthwatering macaroons, comes together to make this meal special.

Each guest even has his or her own seder plate with all the symbolic items.

The Rosenberg and Koslow families and their dedicated crew treat every Special Seder guest like a member of their own family. It is a true labor of love. Shortcuts are not even on their radar.

Betsy Goodrich of St. Mary’s Living Extensions has been attending the Special Seder as long as she can remember.

After the 1996 Special Olympics in Atlanta, Koslow came to know Rachael and Jack Rosenberg and their daughter, Marla, through services at Shearith Israel. Marla at age 5 had been one of the first survivors of childhood leukemia. Rachael said Shearith was the first synagogue in Atlanta to make the sanctuary handicap-accessible by building a wheelchair ramp. Others have followed suit.

Whenever possible, Marla serves as an usher at Shearith Israel. “She knows and loves most of the congregants at Shearith Israel,” Arlene said, “and they love her back.”

Although the Parkinson’s she later developed as a result of radiation is increasingly debilitating, Marla has lived independently the past 15 years under the Zimmerman-Horowitz Independent Living Program of Jewish Family & Career Services.

Arlene Koslow and Rachael Rosenberg smile as the 21st annual Special Seder gets underway in 2017.

“Marla at 51 years old lives a very productive, fulfilling and meaningful life volunteering and working with children each week at Atlanta Jewish Academy, Chaya Mushka Children’s House Preschool, Sheltering Arms nursery school and during the summer at Congregation B’nai Torah camp,” Rachael said. “The JF&CS van takes her to and from her work sites. … The community, including the synagogue, Federation, JF&CS and the community center, has given Marla so much. Marla lives a wonderful and full life. … We are assured that after we’re gone, she will have a place to live and will be taken care of.”

Said Arlene, “In addition to Marla, there were other special-needs congregants at CSI who I wanted to know and to recognize for their strength, courage, determination, and for their abilities.”

Together, Arlene and Rachael came up with the idea of the Special Seder. Rachael said, “For those who have no family, it is their only seder.”

Arlene said, “I know I speak for Rachael, Jack and my husband, Harold, to say that our participation in this program has been one of the most rewarding experiences in our lives.”

“It’s gefilte fish. It’s good. You’ll like it,” Shearith Israel President Rick Kaplan says at the 2017 Special Seder.

The Koslows and Rosenbergs fully sponsored the seder until 10 years ago, when, for their parents’ 50th anniversary, the Rosenberg children, Sharon Kroll, Richard and Cheryl Rosenberg, and Marla, endowed the Rosenberg Seder Fund.

Did I mention the evening was special? To donate to the Special Seder fund, email Rachael Rosenberg at or Arlene Koslow at

The Special Seder will be st 4 p.m. Sunday, March 18, at Congregation Shearith Israel, 1180 University Drive, Morningside. Contact Rosenberg at or 678-305-9401 to attend. Reservations are required.

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