With a specially designed, handicapped-accessible bima, sign-language services for the deaf and alternative holiday programs aimed at those with disabilities, Congregation Rodeph Sholom is at the forefront of the inclusion movement.
Now, the Reform synagogue on the Upper West Side is being formally recognized for its effort to bring people with disabilities — who have long been on the sidelines — more fully into Jewish life. It took first place in The Synagogue Inclusion Award, sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York’s Caring Commission.
“Our goal is to spread the news of how spiritually hungry individuals faced with disabilities are,” said Rabbi Robert Levine of Rodeph Sholom. “There is so much we can do to help these individuals feel involved in the spiritual community.”
The synagogue’s interactive holiday programming for disabled congregants has been well received. “At the recent mini-Pesach seder we hosted for families with disabled children, a mother came up to me in tears,” related Rabbi Levine. “She said her family had always found it too difficult to perform a regular seder. Now, for the first time, her family was truly able to experience the seder.”
Aside from enriching its own programming, Rodeph Sholom intends to use the funding received from this award to aid other synagogues in expanding their range of programming for disabled individuals.
“We hope to show other synagogues that they don’t need millions to expand their programming,” explained Rabbi Levine. “All they need is the willingness to commit to the effort.” The synagogue has a “how-to” manual and hopeful video in the works to help disseminate their methods to other synagogues.
“The main thing we were looking for in the synagogues that applied for this award was a holistic effort in terms of inclusion,” said Diane Scherer, planning executive of UJA-Federation’s Caring Commission. “It’s more than just having one special inclusion Shabbat a year. We were looking for communities who provided services for special-needs members on a wide variety of occasions, including services on holidays, and weekday programming.”
In recent years, UJA-Federation’s Caring Commission has funded several projects to encourage inclusion of individuals faced with disabilities, including educational training programs for synagogues, co-facilitated by the Jewish Education Project and Ramapo For Children, a nonprofit serving children with special needs. The Inclusion Award, thus far a one-time initiative, overlaps with Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month, taking place this month.
Other awards were received by Lincoln Square Synagogue (Manhattan), Stephen Wise Free Synagogue (Manhattan), Westchester Reform Temple (Westchester), Congregation Sons of Israel (Westchester), Chabad of the Greater Five Towns (Long Island), Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (Bronx) and Beth El of Flatbush (Brooklyn). The awards include a stipend of several thousand dollars.