Creating Inclusive Synagogues in Greater Boston

This October, three local synagogues will kick off the second phase of the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project (RSIP), which is designed to support synagogues in creating communities where people of all abilities are valued equally and participate fully. With funding generously provided by the Ruderman Family Foundation, these synagogue communities have been selected to participate in a communal effort to make their own congregations welcoming and inclusive, while also sharing best practices and learnings with the wider community.

And the RSIP synagogues are…

Rabbi Michael Fel says that participating in RSIP is a way for Temple Emunah to expand inclusion efforts that are already underway. In addition to updating accessibility signage, the synagogue hosts popular Friday evening prayer services and dinners that attract the whole congregation.

“These aren’t programs for people with special needs,” explains Rabbi Fel. “It’s a congregational program that just happens to have guests with special needs. By partnering with CJP and the Ruderman Family Foundation, Temple Emunah hopes to sit at a table of leaders in the field of inclusion, not only to learn, but to share our successes as well.”

The program offers participating synagogues $10,000 to implement innovative programs, improvements or training that will help create communities where people of all abilities are active participants. RSIP also offers synagogues access to inclusion resources and experts, as well as coordinated meetings with other RSIP synagogues, to share challenges and best practices.

Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, says that they’ve invested in this program because synagogues hold such an influential place in the life of the Jewish community. 

“A synagogue that does not welcome people with disabilities can alienate not only one individual but his or her entire family,” he explains.  “We hear this time and time again: ‘my brother was not welcome at synagogue so my whole family stopped going.’  On the flip side, a welcoming and inclusive synagogue can win and retain the loyalty of an entire family.”

“This is not only an important social justice issue, but also an urgent continuity issue for our community,” he adds.  

When done well, experts say that inclusion benefits the entire community.

“Inclusion ensures that our community is whole,” explains Rabbi Joel Sisenwine of Temple Beth Elohim. “An inclusive community makes us more open, more accepting, more present to the value that every person is created in the image of God.”

What does “inclusion” really mean?

Yavilah McCoy, CJP’s Congregational Inclusion Liaison, says she began her newly created role early last year simply by listening to congregants from throughout Greater Boston.

“I think the saddest stories I heard were from families who won’t come to synagogue now because they’ve been asked to leave, or told that that their family member was disrupting the service.”

She tells of one woman who has a son on the autism spectrum who had been asked to leave several synagogues. She then tried bringing him to a Chabad service, but started packing up to leave when her son began speaking loudly. Then the most amazing thing happened.

“She told me the rabbi stopped what he was doing, and asked them to stay,” remembers Yavilah. “He told her he appreciated that her son was participating in the way that he could, and that they were welcome there. She was so moved, she burst into tears. That’s inclusion in action.”

Opening doors for all

At Congregation Shaarei Tefillah, Rabbi Benjamin Samuels says that RSIP will help his congregation to make changes that are both physical and conceptual.

“We recently learned that some of the doors in our synagogue building are too heavy for some of our members to open. We are exploring ways, literally and figuratively, to open doors so all can participate. Our commitment to inclusivity not only affects those who need access, but speaks loudly to who we are as caring persons and a caring community.”

Next steps

Over the course of the next year, the three RSIP congregations will work toward self-defined inclusion goals and meet regularly as a group to work through an inclusion curriculum and training. They will also connect regularly online and in person to share their successes with one another and support each other through challenges. With learning gained from this pilot effort, CJP plans to include more synagogue communities in the years to come.

“The experiment is to see if we can invest in this momentum, and take our community some place new,” explains Yavilah. “We’re hoping to see each of these diverse congregations take it to the next level and show Boston what the practice of inclusion looks like in real time.”


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