A Place (Makom) Where Each of Us Belongs and is Cherished: Our Caring Congregations

Each member of the Sisterhood group had been asked to bring something that expressed or reminded them of their relationship to Judaism and their congregation. A young woman lifted a pair of shining Sabbath candlesticks and explained that these symbolized the friendship and caring she felt as part of her Sisterhood group. They had been presented to her as a gift for serving as an officer of the group. She said she kept them in their beautiful velvet box but did not yet use them. She longed for the day when she would marry and experience the glow of the light she would kindle in these candle sticks, surrounded by the love of the family she hoped would one day be hers. An older member said, “That will be wonderful—but why wait? Why not light them this Shabbat as a reminder of God’s love and of the love each of your friends here feels for you right now?” The young woman’s face softened as she radiated the joy we all feel when we are sure we are cared for and belong.

I have the privilege of serving as the URJ Specialist on Caring Community and Jewish Family Concerns. I had traveled to this congregation to speak about ways in which our congregations could become more and more the warm communities of caring for which we all yearn. I also have the privilege of regularly hearing and sharing the exceptional ways in which our congregations and congregants already create places that help each of us to feel truly at home in the world.  This congregation happened to be one with an active Caring Committee that worked with clergy, professional staff and lay leaders to increase the ways in which each person felt needed, supported and encouraged. This congregation was one in which special attention was given to creating opportunities for friendships to develop and in which people looked out for one another. It really made a difference in the lives of all who were part of the community.

I attended Shabbat services at another congregation where I was visiting to gather information about the progress of the Inclusion Committee developed with the help of the URJ Staff, Caring Committee, congregational staff, interested congregants and local advocacy groups for people with disabilities. I noticed a boy of about ten jumping up and down and clapping.  Suddenly he darted away from his family and into the aisle of the Sanctuary. He put his arms around the waist of the Rabbi and gave him a big hug. The Rabbi was carrying the Torah. The boy called out,  “I love you and I love Shabbat! I love Temple!”   A few newcomers gasped, worried the Torah or the Rabbi would topple over. A few children giggled but the congregants keep right on singing. They knew this boy and were fond of him. The rabbi was momentarily a little startled but secured the Torah in one arm and put his other around the boy’s thin shoulders. Together they walked up to the bima and turned to face the congregation. The Rabbi said, “ Please, everybody, be seated. Isn’t it wonderful that Alan is so full of joy that his sister Maya is becoming bat mitzvah next week? We are all just as glad to be here together!” He helped the boy to take the mantle and silver off the Torah and together they placed the Torah securely on the reading table.  Alan’s father walked up to the bima and gently led the boy back to sit with his mother, older sister and grandparents. At another point in the service Alan left the room briefly with a family friend so Alan could settle down. There was a room available where the services could be watched and heard on video available. Alan had developmental delays and significant disabilities that affected his social judgment and occasionally his self-control. Alan was excited about his sister’s special day and his own that would occur three years hence.

When they moved to the community five years before Alan’s family feared there would be no welcome for him or for them. Fortunately, this was a congregation that had worked very thoughtfully to become a community in which every person would be able to participate and contribute. In response to concerns expressed by adult members living with disabilities they had worked with the Union for Reform Judaism materials and staff to develop an Inclusion Committee and to develop educational approaches appropriate for children with many different learning needs. This committee, composed of individuals with disabilities and their families, medical and educational professionals, staff and congregants, began by finding simple ways to extend understanding and to make changes that would reduce stigma and isolation. They discovered quickly that some people were born with disabilities, others acquired disabilities due to accidents or illnesses and still others developed them as they aged. They discovered there was no family and no person who did not have some challenge and would not at some point need special accommodations to make their participation possible. What a loss it would have been if none of these people could be part of the community!

February is Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month, and the URJ will be highlighting resources to help us to develop Communities of Caring and Connection. Please visit RJ.org often and follow links to other URJ web pages to discover the ways in which the URJ can be helpful to you and your community in these efforts. You’ll find powerful accounts of how lives have been and can be strengthened and changed by Judaism and Jewish community.

Please contact me at emencher@urj.org  to consult with me and to discover the many resources developed by the staff and lay leaders of the URJ and by the many congregations that make up our Union.

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Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher, LCSW

About Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher, LCSW

Rabbi Edythe Mencher serves as Faculty for Sacred Caring Community and Coordinator of the URJ-Ruderman Family Foundation Partnership for Inclusion of People with Disabilities. Rabbi Mencher was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (New York) in 1999. She received certification from the Westchester Center for the Study of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy in 1989 and currently serves on the faculty of the Training Institute. She earned her Master of Social Work degree from Hunter College School of Social Work and is a licensed clinical social worker. Rabbi Mencher is the major author of Resilience of the Soul -- Developing Spiritual and Emotional Resilience in Adolescents and their Families, a program guide focusing upon how Jewish communities and tradition can help adolescents and their families develop positive ways of managing stress and difficult emotions. Rabbi Mencher is an adjunct faculty member of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Interfaith Doctor of Ministry Program in Pastoral Counseling.

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