Shir Lanu – One Song, Every Voice. That is the name of the dynamic inclusion initiative at Congregation Shirat Hayam of the North Shore. The Conservative Jewish congregation in Swampscott has emerged as one of the bright stars among the synagogues that have partnered with the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project (RSIP).

Over a decade ago, the Ruderman Family Foundation made disability advocacy and inclusion a top priority of its philanthropic mission. RSIP is just one of the foundation’s latest endeavors on behalf of disability rights. Synagogues that participate in the project are vetted for their commitment to any person who walks through their doors, especially those with disabilities.

In May 2016, RSIP and Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) celebrated synagogue inclusion in an event called “Opening Doors to Jewish Community.” Rabbi Julia Watts Belser, a professor of Jewish studies at Georgetown University’s theology department, was the keynote speaker. At that same occasion, Neshama Carlebach and Josh Nelson welcomed RSIP’s newest congregational partners and affiliates with their music.


This year singer-songwriter Neshama Carlebach will be back in the area supporting RSIP’s work at Shirat Hayam on Oct. 27-28. She will perform with her band and the Glory to God Gospel Singers with whom she frequently collaborates. In an interview with JewishBoston, Carlebach noted: “I perform at a lot of events, but it’s a rare gift when I want to be a part of one after the event has ended. I was blessed to sing at the RSIP program in 2016, and I was profoundly moved. I cried throughout the evening. It was so beautiful and powerful. I sobbed at the way Julia Watts Belser connected the merkava—the chariot—to God’s wheels. After that speech, there is almost not a day that I don’t see a car wheel or a bicycle wheel when I don’t think about God being on wheels.”

Michele Tamaren, one of the co-chairs of Shir Lanu, said that as soon as she was asked, Carlebach didn’t hesitate to come to Shirat Hayam as an artist-in-residence. “Neshama is deeply devoted and passionate about inclusion within synagogues,” Tamaren told JewishBoston. Tamaren was also at the May 2016 RSIP event, where she introduced herself to Carlebach. “I was so enormously moved by Neshama’s voice and her commitment to inclusion,” she said. “I approached her and we almost immediately began to dream about doing an event together.”

Molly Silver, CJP’s manager of RSIP, is proud of Shirat Hayam for bringing Carlebach to the Boston area to celebrate inclusion. “Shirat Hayam has made it its mission to become more welcoming,” she said. “They are responding to some of the heartbreaking stories of rejection that one hears.” Silver added that the congregation has checked off a “whole list of accommodations that include large-print books, listening devices, fidget toys, nursing rooms, labeling food ingredients and adding more accessible parking spots.”

Silver also noted a d’var Torah—a sermon-like commentary on the Torah—which Tamaren delivered on Yom Kippur. At one point Tamaren invoked a verse from Isaiah that said: “The Lord decrees, ‘Build up, build up a highway. Clear the road! Remove all the obstacles from the road of my people.’ Here at Shirat Hayam, we are committed to do just that: Remove all of the obstacles from the road of our people. Remove obstacles to synagogue life and provide support, compassion, holy hospitality to us all, not just on this day ha yom, but every day, kol yom.” 

Carlebach affirmed Tamaren’s clarion call. “The fact that we have to have a revolution about inclusivity is so heartbreaking,” she said. “It’s like having a revolution on the need to breathe. How can you not possibly tell the world that they have to be inclusive? Why is it not automatic? Why doesn’t everyone in the world understand that people with different abilities and choice patterns deserve a hand? Inclusivity is the most important cause in the Jewish community now.”

Matan Koch, an inclusion activist, will join Carlebach in conversation on Shabbat morning. The two will talk about Koch’s disability journey. “I’m such a fan, admirer and friend of Matan,” said Carlebach. “I met him at the [2016] event, and we’ve been closely in touch since then. I feel blessed to have this moment of connection with him to amplify his strength and to love him back publicly.”

Noted Silver: “It is so powerful for an artist of Neshama’s stature to be doing this kind of inclusion work and dedicating a concert to it. It’s a beautiful way to use her star power and spread the word on something so important in Jewish life.”

For her part, Carlebach asserted that this is an “incredible moment for me to be involved with work as important as inclusion. I hope and pray that people in the world hear that it is time for all of the doors to be opened. I don’t want my children to know that there is an effort to be inclusive; I want them to know that this is the way to live.”

Find more information on Neshama Carlebach’s Oct. 28 concert at Congregation Shirat Hayam here.

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