It's easy to overlook ways that we exclude others—we don’t do it on purpose, but it can happen when we lack insight or understanding of people who have perspectives, abilities or backgrounds that are different from ours. These unintentional exclusions can happen even in our synagogue communities. The good news is, with some adaptations of language, of physical space and of viewpoints, we can enrich everyone's experience.
Rabbi Sonia Saltzman of Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline knows firsthand how a welcoming and inclusive congregation brings people together. As part of Jewish Disabilities and Awareness Inclusion Month (JDAIM), CJP asked her for her thoughts on what it means to practice inclusion.
On Ohabei Shalom's "deep culture of inclusion"
Ohabei Shalom is in many respects a very diverse congregation—we are in an urban setting, we’re close to the MBTA and draw from many different communities. The congregation is extremely welcoming and this openness extends to everyone, including people with intellectual or physical disabilities. From the beginning of my time here, it was evident to me that this welcoming attitude is central to the identity of the congregation. I feel very blessed that I am part of a community that has this very deep culture of inclusion.
On Jewish learning
We had a bar mitzvah this past September for a boy who has Down syndrome and who has been a part of the congregation since he was little. His classmates have seen firsthand how he is part of all aspects of congregational life—including outings and retreats. For his bar mitzvah he took on the same responsibilities as his peers—chanting from the Torah, giving a d’var Torah and leading prayers. I know it was a deeply moving experience for him and he certainly made the entire congregation very proud.
We celebrated an adult bat mitzvah of a long-time member in our community who has learning and physical disabilities. The Cantor and I worked with her over a period of a year. She chanted Torah and delivered a beautiful d’var Torah. Her bat mitzvah sent a strong message to the congregation about our commitment to provide such an experience to anyone who seeks it.
On leading by example
One of our board members is legally blind. She is an active participant on many committees and is a worship leader in our community. It is so important that our leadership includes people with disabilities.
On rising, either in body, or in spirit
For myself, I have learned to be mindful, both of announcing page numbers regularly and of the language I use when leading services. For example, when asking people to rise, I now say: “Please rise either in body or in spirit.” I learned this from Rabbi Julia Watts Belser, who herself is unable to rise in body from her wheelchair.
In terms of our physical space, this summer we did a major renovation that, among other things, included lowering the bima and installing a ramp in the Sanctuary. We are hoping to install an elevator adjacent to the Sanctuary in the coming months to make our entire space wheelchair accessible.
Partnering for the future
We are applying to be a Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project partner. We’ve done a lot of the infrastructure work, and now we want to understand how to leverage those efforts and the investment that we’ve already made. How do we truly create a welcoming environment for everyone, not only those who have physical disabilities? We want to take our work to a higher, more strategic level. We’re very excited about moving forward with the help of the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project and CJP to really learn about best practices.
Under the leadership of Education Director Shari Churwin, both our preschool (The Trust Center for Early Education) and our religious school (Ansin Religious School) have strong partnerships with Gateways: Access to Jewish Education. We also have a learning specialist and resources allocated to enhancing teacher-to-student ratio when this is needed. A child with a disability starts their Jewish journey with us in an environment where there is significant support. We want to make sure that this support extends beyond the school years—that we provide our adult members who have physical or intellectual disabilities with the support they need to feel included.
Keeping the momentum going
There are many things we want to do over the coming year to make our community more inclusive. To start with, we want our message of inclusion to be reflected front and center in our website. We want to have permanent and professionally designed signage that helps communicate this message—indicating, for example, the location of gender neutral bathrooms, as well as wheelchair accessibility. We would also like to provide sign language interpretation during the High Holy Days services, when we have 1,200 people in our sanctuary.
These are just some of the changes we are hoping to make in the coming year. Most importantly, we will be meeting in small groups as well as surveying our community so that we can better understand the needs of the congregation.
On taking that first step
I think the best advice I can give to congregations looking to be more inclusive is to listen to what people need in order to feel welcomed and respected. What’s most important is not to assume that we know the answers; we need to work on building relationships and trust. When we do this we will have a much better chance of understanding what needs to be done.
In that spirit of being open to listening—I ‘d like to extend an invitation to a presentation by Loretta Claiborne, the Special Olympics athlete who spoke so inspiringly at the Ruderman Inclusion summit this past fall. She will be speaking at Ohabei Shalom on April 13 at 7:30 p.m. Everyone is welcome to attend; details are available on the Ohabei Shalom website.
About Rabbi Saltzman
For the past five years, Rabbi Saltzman has been the rabbi at Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline, and previously served as rabbi at Sharei Shalom in Ashland. Rabbi Saltzman was ordained at Hebrew College as one of the members of the first rabbinical class.