An inclusive havdalah. Courtesy of Ohev Shalom of Bucks County
“Teach a child in the way he should go and he will not stray from it even when he gets older” -Proverbs 22:6.
Ohev Shalom of Bucks County is a vibrant congregation located in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Its membership spans across many diverse demographics, including families with young children, empty-nesters and grandparents. The connections the members have with one another are dynamic and relationship building is always a priority. Several years ago, a few congregants noticed that, while Ohev is successful with engaging typical members, the synagogue seemed to be excluding the families and members with disabilities. They raised a red flag, and a call to action was sounded. Within weeks, a team was formed, and an inclusion initiative was developed.InclusionB’Kavod (with respect) was created to assess and address the needs of the congregation.
The team sprang into action, forming several sub-committees, including a group of educators to focus on ensuring our worship was inclusive. Clergy encouraged all members of the congregation to participate in worship services, implementing a “come when you can, leave when you must” policy. However, there are families, congregants and community members with differently abled children who were still very uncomfortable participating in programming, and more importantly, Shabbat services.
Inclusion B’Kavod team members researched and explored possibilities to an alternative type of service. A local Reconstructionist synagogue found success with a Shabbat program developed by a local inclusion specialist. Fortunately, the team was able to bring the program to the synagogue, with revisions and refinements tailored to meet our needs.
Celebrations! @ Ohev was created over six years ago to enable differently abled families to experience Shabbat in a welcoming and comfortable way. Celebrations! @ Ohev is a monthly Shabbat morning program that targets children ages 4-18 years old with diagnosed developmental delays, or physical and/or psychological challenges. Lay leaders and volunteers join together to create a unique experience for the participants and their families. Each Celebrations! @ Ohev session has a theme highlighting Jewish holidays and events. Children are assigned a teen buddy to promote and help foster friendships. The engaging experience encompasses a variety of activities such as a musical Shabbat Service, theme-based crafts as well as movement activities. Adult volunteers assist with all preparations and activities. Teen volunteers participate side-by-side with the children, making them feel welcome and supported. One of the most joyous moments occurs as the participants arrive and are greeted by the teen buddies. The relationships and friendships between the participants and teens are so strong that many of our teen buddies continue to participate as college students.
Building relationships and forming connections between the families as well as adult participants is also a goal for Celebrations! @ Ohev. To honor our mission of inclusivity, each Celebrations! @ Ohev has a Parent/Caretaker breakout group where adult participants have an opportunity to meet and discuss strategies and concerns. The group enables adults to network and to reach out to each other for support. The sessions are led by a licensed psychologist, who may choose to focus on a particular challenge or success. Guest speakers such as local inclusion specialists, support agency personnel and Jewish educators sometimes join the group to provide a different point of view or offer specialized support.
In addition to the monthly Shabbat Morning events, Celebrations! @ Ohev offers a variety of hands on Jewish events such as a Havdalah Service (the service that concludes Shabbat), specialized Purim Carnival activities, and participation in a social action program packing and distributing food to those in need with the Jewish Relief Agency. Using the same mantra as our synagogue, Celebrations! @ Ohev families are offered the opportunity to come when they can, leave when they must.
Ohev Shalom’s mission statement is to celebrate the diversity of our families. To further our mission, the inclusion team participated in the fourth cohort of USCJ’s Ruderman Inclusion Action Community. Through our involvement in this network of conservative synagogues, we were able to implement additional enhancements including how we communicate and share information with families, addressing the diverse needs of our aging population and adding physical enhancements. For example, we learned how to implement the appropriate language to encourage families to attend Celebrations! @ Ohev and other synagogue programs. Also, as a direct result of the workshops on the aging population, one modification we implemented was placing a sturdy armchair adjacent to the main building entrance to aid with mobility. The chairs enable individuals a chance to rest after the long walk into the shul. One summer day, an elderly couple, using walkers for mobility, entered the synagogue building using the steep, long walkway that leads to the main entrance. Upon entering the building, the couple immediately sat down in the chairs, commenting, “what a wonderful idea placing these chairs here.” Their comment and compliment validated our vision and purpose.
As we take our inclusion initiative to the next level, our synagogue recently adopted a commitment statement, which is included on every piece of paper and communication that the synagogue sends. “Ohev Shalom celebrates the uniqueness of each individual and family and welcomes diversity within our sacred community.” Through Celebrations! @ Ohev and our participation in the Ruderman Inclusion Action Community sponsored by USCJ, we help fulfill Ohev’s inclusion mission. However, there is still work to be done at the synagogue level as well as within the greater community. Our synagogue and community will truly be an inclusive space when it just is and we don’t have to discuss inclusion anymore.
Editor’s Note: This blog originally appeared on the USCJ blog.