This month three local synagogues are kicking off the second phase of the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project (RSIP), designed to support synagogues in creating communities where people of all abilities are valued equally and participate fully.

In partnership with CJP, the Ruderman Family Foundation generously awarded $10,000 each to Temple Emunah of Lexington, Congregation Shaarei Tefillah in Newton Center and Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley to help them work toward self-defined inclusion goals and meet regularly for training and to share successes and challenges. The plan is to include more synagogue communities in the years to come based on learning gained from this pilot effort.

Clockwise, from top left: Jean Whitney,
philanthropic advisor at Ropes & Gray LLP; 
Yavilah McCoy; and Sharon Shapiro-Lacks,
executive director of Yad HaChazakah-The
Jewish Disability Empowerment Center,
at a Ruderman awards event earlier this year

To learn more about the vision for this program, I sat down with Sharon Shapiro, trustee of the Ruderman Family Foundation and program officer for the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project. She explains what makes a synagogue inclusive, how this program can help and her vision for a fully inclusive Jewish community.

What are you hoping to achieve through the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project?

Some synagogues in Greater Boston have already taken strong steps toward becoming more inclusive of people with a variety of disabilities. Three of the synagogue leaders have been selected to participate in this project. But we are highlighting this issue in order to motivate a far greater number of congregations in our community to recognize the importance of inclusion and take steps to make it happen. This should be a value shared by all congregations. When you reflect on the fact that 20 percent of our community has a disability of some kind, it’s a no-brainer!

What makes a synagogue inclusive?

Of course physical accessibility is a prerequisite: everyone has to be able to get inside the door and the sanctuary. But full inclusion is far more than simple accessibility. The rabbi and all the congregants need to understand the importance of inclusion so it becomes part of the culture. Sometimes you’ll see one or two people with apparent disabilities wandering around a synagogue. People say hello and no one bothers them, but they are not really included in the life of the community. Some rabbis preach on inclusion once a year. That’s a nice start, but inclusion needs to be a daily part of synagogue life. It needs to be visible and it needs to be discussed regularly. You need to take many specific steps to make it central by creating programs, committees and visible events, such as inclusive Shabbatons.

Why is synagogue inclusion such an important issue for you?

My family feels strongly that Jews who happen to have disabilities have the same right to inclusion in our community as any other Jew. Everyone has the right to feel good about being Jewish, rather than being treated as an outsider. Our family has decided that advocating for this right to inclusion is the leading priority of our foundation.

What is your greater vision for cultural change in the Jewish community?

We look forward to the day when full inclusion is an accepted and expected part of American Jewish culture, and that no one needs to be taught how to be inclusive anymore. We are launching this project to share the tools needed to make a community inclusive, and we are confident that anyone who experiences a fully inclusive community will never want to go back. Inclusion will feel natural to us as Jews and we will feel uncomfortable in any setting that does not automatically include people with disabilities; we will instinctively know that part of our community is missing.

Yavilah McCoy is CJP’s congregational inclusion liaison and director of the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project.