Shaareinu: The “Collateral Good” Cannot be Overstated
By Eva Rubin Steen
The leaders of Temple Beth Torah, a community that always has held inclusion and acceptance as core tenets, realized a few years ago that we were not doing a good job of welcoming those who face physical, emotional, or cognitive challenges. We recognized, too, that by excluding even one family member from participating in Jewish life, we were effectively excluding the entire family. Including all who wish to join in the life of the synagogue enriches each of us, so our lack of welcome was painful for too many families, which in turn hurt our congregation and the broader Jewish community.
Once we identified the issue, our board of trustees immediately and wholeheartedly endorsed the creation of Shaareinu (Our Gateways), which strives to open new gateways for individuals (and their families) for whom participation in all aspects of synagogue life – worship, religious school, and programming – is limited by various challenges.
We established four lay-led task forces and involve more than 80 congregants as volunteers in welcoming into congregational life individuals and families who are affected by physical, emotional or cognitive challenges:
- Our Education Task Force brings religious school teachers together with volunteers from the congregation who are trained in learning disabilities and classroom management techniques. Task force volunteers plan and present workshops for our faculty that address such topics as how best to structure the classroom, implement behavioral analysis, and deal with different learning styles and teaching strategies.
- Our Technology Task Force installed an assistive listening system, which enables those who wear hearing aids and others with hearing loss to follow along with what goes on in the sanctuary. Although no one complained before we put in our telecoil hearing loop, as soon as the loop went in, many congregants admitted that they had hearing problems and thanked us for helping them have a better experience. We also installed a live internet streaming video system – accessible by computer, mobile device, and many television cable boxes – to bring worship and programming to congregants who are homebound.
- Mental health issues are the focus of our Nefesh (soul) Task Force, which, together with other community groups, co-hosts panel discussions and seminars that address numerous mental health challenges related to parenting, anxiety, school violence and bullying, alcohol and drug addiction, and similar topics. These seminars often are co-sponsored by Jewish Family Services, United Hospice, or other community groups, and many of our volunteers offer their professional expertise as presenters. Nefesh also maintains an extensive list of mental health resources on the congregation’s website.
- Our Chesed (loving-kindness) Task Force seeks to increase the sense of connectivity and community within the congregational family by supporting each other in times of sorrow and rejoicing in times of joy. In addition to reaching out to those who are celebrating a simcha, are homebound, ill, or in mourning, Chesed, together with Nefesh co-sponsors programs that address such topics as caring for the aged and visiting the sick.
The benefits of these endeavors to those with disabilities in our community should be fairly obvious. What is less obvious, however, is how extraordinarily rewarding this work is to those of us who volunteer in this initiative. As our congregation’s former leader, Rabbi Brian Beal, was fond of saying, “The collateral good of this initiative cannot be overstated.”
Indeed, in addition to the personal fulfillment our many dedicated volunteers derive from this work, our congregation now excels in including all people in synagogue life. We are proud to be featured as an “exemplar congregation” on the URJ’s disabilities inclusion website, and we look forward to ongoing Shaareinu offerings this spring on such topics as positive parent-child interactions, memory improvement, eating disorders, CPR, and autism.
Eva Rubin Steen and her family are longtime, active members of Temple Beth Torah in Nyack, N.Y. A past president and former member of many committees and task forces, some of which she chaired, Eva continues to serve on the board of trustees