Growing up, I went to a conservative and an orthodox synagogue with my family on a regular basis and mingled with relatively large congregations. I never gave much thought to the sea of people that I saw each Shabbat and holiday–neither had people in wheelchairs and/or persons with any visible disabilities. Even as I continued to attend synagogue as an adult, not one of the synagogues I belonged to was inclusive.

Slowly, I started to hear from many families who did not feel welcome at their synagogue of choice because those synagogues did not know how to include family members with a disability.  After feeling turned away, those families left their synagogue and often the Jewish community altogether. We, the Ruderman Family Foundation, wanted to do something about this unfairness. In partnership with Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), we created the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project.  As my family’s foundation ventured into making synagogues more inclusive, I became exposed to synagogues who were not fully accessible as well as a variety of programs to include people with disabilities.

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Through this initiative, we have partnered with three remarkable synagogues: Shaarei Tefillah, Beth Elohim and Temple Emunah who have incredible programs of including people with all abilities. Since being involved in CJP’s Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project, I noticed synagogues that are more welcoming and inclusive to people with disabilities have more families in attendance because there is an overt sense of warmth and inclusion for everyone. This project has been so successful that we are adding an additional eight partners and nine affiliates to the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion project.  What is most impressive to me is that these new partners have done an incredible amount of work on their own to make their synagogues inclusive because they realize the importance of including all and often work on a small budget to make this happen. I look forward to hearing that all synagogues in the Greater Boston community will want to be a part of this essential movement.

The Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project (RSIP) and CJP had an unforgettable evening dedicated to creating an inclusive Jewish community this May. It celebrated progress and welcomed the new RSIP Congregational Partners and Affiliates. Keynote speaker, Julia Watts Belser, discussed “Disability and the Arts of Midrash.” She explored how a disability can be a powerful source of “embodied Torah” and can open up new perspectives on Jewish ethics and new ways of imagining God’s presence in this world. Neshama Carlebach and Josh Nelson also opened and closed the program with a joyful a cappella performance.

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Jay Ruderman (President, Ruderman Family Foundation)
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Josh Nelson, Jay Ruderman, Professor Julia Watts Belser, Neshama Carlebach and Sharon Shapiro (from left to right)
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Barry Shrage (President, Combined Jewish Philanthropies) and Jay Ruderman (President, Ruderman Family Foundation)

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