The Little Shul That Could (And Yours Can, Too!)
by Rabbi Robin Nafshi
Temple Beth Jacob in Concord, N.H., has a membership of about 210 families. And like all other communities both large and small, a number of our students have physical and/or cognitive disabilities. Our philosophy is to do all we can to provide maximum access for all of our members.
One of our religious school students is Jacob, whose mother has said it’s fine to use his real name here. Jacob has detachment disorder, environmental autism, language delay, and rage issues – and he has been in our religious school since kindergarten. At no time have we considered excluding him. In fact, in the 5th grade, we held him back a year so he could join a class of loving, caring students, as his original class had many students with serious behavioral issues.
Jacob is now in 7th grade. Although he is 14, he has decided he is not yet ready to become a bar mitzvah. He and I met weekly for several months (as I do with all b’nai mitzvah students) so he could learn about the process and we could design a service for him. One day, he came into my office and simply announced that he wasn’t ready. I told him I supported him in his decision and would help him anytime he felt he was ready.
My real concern with Jacob is how he will stay connected after 7th grade. For many reasons, participation in our 8th grade class is out, and after 7th grade, the only possible role at religious school on Sunday morning is as a madrich (classroom aide), something Jacob is not ready for. And so Jacob, his mom, our principals, and I will work together to create something for him after this year.
While Jacob is our most profoundly disabled student, we enroll others. One young student’s cognitive issues surfaced at the end of last year when she was unable to read English or Hebrew at her class’s service. This year, she’ll be involved in equally valuable ways that don’t require her to read, taking the lead in her class’s acting out of their d’var torah, for example. Another student has an affective disorder that is exacerbated by certain lighting, so we have changed all the light fixtures in our classrooms. Another young boy has profound behavioral issues. We have hired a recent college graduate to be with him one-on-one throughout religious school, as we have done with others before him.
Ours is not a remarkable community. We simply believe there is a place for everyone at Temple Beth Jacob. We want our kids to be proud Jews, to be learned Jews, and to read Hebrew (if that’s possible), but more importantly, we want our kids to know that they are loved for who they are, and that this congregation is a safe and secure place for them. We cannot achieve these goals if we retain barriers to their involvement – so when we discover barriers, we knock them down.
Rabbi Robin Nafshi serves Temple Beth Jacob in Concord, N.H.