By: Rabbi Michael Fel, Temple Emunah

(This post about an inclusive Shabbat service that makes everyone of every ability feel welcome and involved originally appeared on March 14 in  Zeh Lezeh (for One Another), the Ruderman Family Foundation blog)

Creating an Inclusive Atmosphere
It only takes a matter of moments for the energetic tunes of Kabbalat Shabbat (Sabbath prayer) to transform a group of strangers into a united prayer community.  By the time we reached Psalm 96, a mere five minutes into the service, I looked up from the  lectern and saw nearly the entire congregation, guests and regulars, linked hand in hand, singing and dancing, as if they had known each other for years.  Thus began our first ever Mahaneh Emunah at Temple Emunah in Lexington, Massachusetts.  After services, we enjoyed a delicious Shabbat dinner catered by Camp Ramah of New England, sang z’mirot (Shabbat songs) and played games.  By the night’s end, participants were eagerly asking when the next Mahaneh Emunah would take place.

From its inception, the goal of Mahaneh Emunah was to create a prayer experience that was inclusive and interesting to ALL members of the Jewish community. Rather than creating a program from scratch, we modified our existing Friday Night service, thus enabling our guests to integrate quicker into our community.  These modifications, which are applicable to any service or congregation, included:

● Designating a quiet space for those who can become over stimulated.
● Supplying earplugs and/or personal audio amplification for those with hearing needs.
● Creating a large flip chart to display the page numbers throughout the service.
● Telling a five-minute interactive story during prayers.
● Arranging the chairs in a U Shape with extra-wide aisles for easy access and egress from the service.
● Providing large print copies of the prayer book and an outline of the service/evening’s program.
● Designating “Synagogue Buddies” to sit with and acclimate guests into the community.

The evening drew over one hundred participants, including many unaffiliated families, who heard of the program through other community organizations. The program was also subsidized through partnerships with the National Ramah Commission and Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Boston.

In the end, we created an opportunity that was engaging and accessible, with one congregant commenting, “Why can’t we do this every week?  These modifications are helpful to everyone!”

Michael Fel is the Assistant Rabbi at Temple Emunah in Lexington, Massachusetts


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