MAY 18, 2017 — Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott and Temple Sinai in Marblehead were among dozens of synagogues that applied for Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project (RSIP) grants in 2016. Both were selected and on May 23, they will be among the nine 2017 Cohort of RSIP Congregational Partners welcomed and recognized at the annual Combined Jewish Philanthropies “Celebrating Inclusion” event.
“We are very excited to be working with two synagogues on the North Shore this year and are very interested in regional collaboration,” said Molly Silver, who manages the partnership between CJP and RSIP.
For over a decade, the Ruderman Family Foundation’s philanthropic mission has advocated for the disabled. RSIP, its newest initiative, awards $5,000 grants to synagogues to help fund programs that ensure all people, including those with profound disabilities, are able to participate in congregational activities.
RSIP started as a pilot program in 2013 with just three Boston synagogues.
Sharon Shapiro is the daughter of founder Morton E. Ruderman and a foundation trustee. As community liaison, she’s in charge of all projects in the Greater Boston and North Shore areas.
“There is a group of people who are not coming to synagogue because they feel there’s nothing there for them,” she said. “RSIP raises awareness for inclusion in general, but specifically for people with disabilities because that is the focus of our foundation.”
Silver was particularly struck by Temple Sinai’s and Shirat Hayam’s Inclusion Action Plans and ambitious goals. “What stood out about their applications was a deep and profound desire among both communities to be a ‘kehillah kedosha,’ or a holy community, that strives to welcome everyone who comes through their doors.”
Shirat Hayam Rabbi Michael Ragozin hopes the congregation will become fully inclusive for children with disabilities and their families. “It’s heartbreaking to hear the stories of rejection that families, seeking to raise their children in a Jewish community, have experienced,” he said.
Ragozin also envisions Shirat Hayam will become more welcoming to interfaith families, the LGBTQ community, households with varied incomes, and individuals experiencing mental health issues.
“Inclusion is a clarion call to honor the uniqueness of each one of us,” he said.
Temple Sinai Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez agreed. “To be able to reach and kiss the mezuzah, to be able to drink water or go to the restroom, to have access to the bimah and the Torah, to be able to read and hear the services are things we might take for granted,” he said.
Both synagogues have formed inclusion committees with ambitious goals for the coming year. Amanda Clayman and Michele Tamaren co-chair Shirat Hayam’s 14-member “Shir Lanu: One Song – Every Voice” committee. Deborah Shelkan Remis chairs Temple Sinai’s nine-member committee.
Remis noted the network already operates for congregants who need rides or meals, have hearing assisted devices, or need large print prayer books. “This is just the beginning,” she said.
At Shirat Hayam, Hebrew School director Janice Knight leads Torah study focused on inclusion as a Jewish value and has invited trainers to work with staff and teens through “Gateways: Access to Jewish Education.”
The synagogue’s greeters also have received training on the use of inclusive language.
Shapiro remembers about five years ago when someone from Shirat Hayam who had an adult son with disabilities was trying desperately to make changes at the synagogue. “I think it took this project and other families coming forward to make the work really impactful in the synagogue top down and bottom up,” she said.
That “someone” is Marcy Yellin, whose son Jacob, now 32, is a regular at the synagogue’s events and services. “I’m thrilled for Shirat Hayam to be included in the Ruderman Foundation grant,” Yellin said. “It’s wonderful to see that people are taking disabilities seriously and mobilizing together to support our most vulnerable, especially in the Jewish world.”