Congregation Shirat Hayam (CSH) in Swampscott and Temple Sinai in Marblehead were among the dozens of synagogues that applied for Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project (RISP) grants in 2016. They both were selected and on May 23, they will be among the nine 2017 Cohort of RISP Congregational Partners welcomed and recognized at the annual CJP “Celebrating Inclusion” event.
“We are very excited to be working with two synagogues on the North Shore this year and are very interested in regional collaboration,” said Molly Silver, who manages the partnership between the CJP and RISP. “Being inclusive is a sacred and holy imperative of Jews and this project helps synagogues realize their own unique vision of inclusion.”
For over a decade, the Ruderman Family Foundation philanthropic mission has emphasized disability advocacy and inclusion. Its newest initiative, RISP, awards $5,000 grants to synagogues in the Greater Boston and North Shore communities to help fund programs that ensure that all people, including those with profound disabilities, are able to participate in congregational activities.
RISP started as a pilot program in 2013 with just three Boston synagogues.
Sharon Shapiro is the daughter of founder Morton E. Ruderman and a Ruderman Family Foundation trustee. As Community Liaison, she is in charge of all projects in the greater Boston and North Shore areas, including RISP.
“There is a group of people who are not coming to synagogue because they feel there’s nothing there for them,” she said. “RISP raises awareness for inclusion in general, but specifically for people with disabilities because that is the focus of our foundation.”
Silver was particularly struck by Temple Sinai’s and CSH’s strategic and thoughtful Inclusion Action Plans and ambitious goals. “What stood out about their applications was a deep and profound desire among both communities to be a “kehillah k’dosha”, a holy community that strives to welcome everyone who walks through their doors.
Rabbi Michael Ragozin hopes CSH will become fully inclusive of children with disabilities and their families. “It’s heartbreaking to hear the stories of rejection that families, seeking to raise their children in a Jewish community, families whose children will thrive in a Torah environment, have experienced,” he said.
Beyond the letter of the grant, he also hopes CSH will become even more inclusive of interfaith families, the LGBTQ community, households with varied incomes, and individuals experiencing mental health issues.
“Inclusion is a clarion call to honor the uniqueness of each one of us,” he said.
Temple Sinai’s Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez agrees. “To be able to reach and kiss the mezuzah, to be able to drink water or go to the restroom, to have access to the bimah and the Torah, to be able to read and hear the services are things we might take for granted,” he said, noting many others in the community might not be as fortunate.
Both synagogues have formed Inclusion Committees with ambitious and concrete goals and plans for the coming year. Amanda Clayman and Michele Tamaren co-chair CSH’s 14-member “Shir Lanu: One Song – Every Voice” committee. Deborah Shelkan Remis chairs Temple Sinai’s nine-member committee.
Remis pointed to the network already operating for congregants who need rides or meals, have hearing assisted devices or need large print siddurim. “This is just the beginning,” she said.
AT CSH, Hebrew School director Janice Knight leads Torah study focused on inclusion as a Jewish value and has invited trainers to work with staff and teens through “Gateways: Access to Jewish Education”. CSH greeters have received training on the use of inclusive language. An accessibility handout itemizes available inclusion support.
“We believe inclusion is holy, just and divine. Everyone is welcome and must feel welcome at Shirat Hayam,” Clayman said.
Ruderman trustee Shapiro remembers about five or six years ago when someone from CSH with an adult son with disabilities was trying desperately to make changes at the synagogue. “I think it took this project and other families coming forward to make the wok really impactful in the synagogue top down and bottom up,” she said.
That “someone” is Marcy Yellin, whose 32-year-old son Jacob is a regular at CSH events and services. “I’m thrilled for Shirat Hayam to be included in the Ruderman Foundation grant. I have great respect for all the things the Foundation does. It’s wonderful to see that people are taking disabilities seriously and mobilizing together to support our most vulnerable, especially in the Jewish world,” she said.
She paused for a moment and then added with a smile, “we have waited a very long time for this.”