DECEMBER 20, 2018, NEWTON – There have been subtle but meaningful changes in synagogues across Greater Boston. Siddurim are now offered in large print. Rabbis ask their congregations to “rise in body and spirit,” an acknowledgement that not all congregants can stand during services. Doorways now have a second mezuzah low enough that someone in a wheelchair could reach and kiss it.
Ramps to the bimah allow congregants with disabilities to serve an aliyah. And for the first time, congregations are having conversations about what it means to welcome congregants struggling with their mental health. Rabbi Rachel Sapphire of Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley even made it the subject of a recent Kol Nidre sermon.
These heartening changes have been made possible with the help of the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project (RSIP), which since 2015 has provided resources to make synagogues a place where all are truly welcome. Through a partnership with Combined Jewish Philanthropies, RSIP awards a $5,000 grant each year to nine synagogues who present promising inclusion action plans.
On Dec. 11, over 350 people gathered at Temple Emanuel in Newton to attend the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project dinner and workshop for its new and existing synagogue partnerships.
“This particular evening is our main recruitment tool for our new synagogue grantees and also our existing congregational partners,” said RSIP Manager Molly Silver. “In the room the other night, 350 people and 40 synagogues were represented. They could look around and see that they were not alone on this journey to become more inclusive and champion the fact that all people should be involved in Jewish life. The Ruderman Foundation really does believe that inclusion is what turns a synagogue from a collection of people into a holy community.”
After remarks from Ruderman Family Foundation Trustee Sharon Shapiro and Anita Diamant, the noted author and keynote speaker, new affiliates (which include Chabad of the North Shore in Swampscott and Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly) took part in a workshop called “Strategies for Synagogue Inclusion.” Meanwhile, current RSIP partners, and alumni (which include Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead, Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott, and Temple Sinai in Marblehead) took part in educational workshops on either disability awareness or implementing mental health initiatives.
“We’ve seen synagogue communities do very well with ramps, and assisted listening devices, and allergy-free kiddushes, but not as well with mental health issues. This workshop was the next step,” said Silver, who noted that last year’s event was the first to delve deeply into a topic that still carries so many stigmas.
Representatives from Temple Beth Elohim of Wellesley, Temple Isaiah of Lexington, and Congregation Shaarei Tefillah of Newton spoke about their congregations’ mental health initiatives. People who have lived with the experience also participated in the panel, discussing how their faith and synagogue community helped them through difficult times.
Silver stressed how powerful it’s been to witness the changing conversation around mental health. “A woman who had a psychotic break right before her bat mitzvah was able to work with a rabbi and have a bat mitzvah that worked for her,” said Silver. “We’ve seen congregant after congregant get up and do personal prayers around their depression or their suicidality or their eating disorder, and how coming to synagogue on a weekly basis helps them to be who they were.
“We’re seeing more and more rabbis now that are visiting patients in psychiatric hospitals. It was said [at the Dec. 11 workshop] that when you get out of McLean [Hospital], no one is bringing you a casserole or a brisket. The goal is to make that happen. We just want people to bring their full selves to their synagogue.”