“For my house shall be a house of prayer for ALL people.” Isaiah 56:7
Inclusion at Congregation Beth El of the Sudbury River Valley
At the heart of Beth El’s Inclusion Mission is a deeply held conviction that every person who seeks to journey with us is welcome and entitled to full and meaningful participation in Jewish and congregational life.
Enhancement of our prayer life, improvements to our building, and accessible programming benefit everyone. All are essential to our lives as Jews. Ramps, wheelchair-accessible doors, focus tools, light filtering shades, adjustable Torah tables, name tags and other “accommodations” may be useful beyond their disability access purpose. At Beth El we have witnessed this during the past several years, as our inclusion initiative has progressed.
A new wooden ramp now connects the sanctuary to the Gan Hadorot (Garden of the Generations) enabling wheelchair users, families with young children, people with limited mobility and all others to access our beautiful outdoor grounds. Our new Amoud (Torah table) can be adjusted to accommodate varying heights for people of short or tall stature, young readers, people with low vision and wheelchair users. Focus tools can be helpful for anyone who tends to “fidget” in services or during other gatherings. Reading glasses, large print prayerbooks and augmented listening equipment are available to assist with visual and auditory needs.
This past May, our emerging efforts to make our community more inclusive and accessible were highlighted at a Shabbat service titled “Celebrating Ourselves”. Throughout the morning, these efforts were apparent. A new, beautifully constructed, wooden ramp to the garden welcomed everyone to pray the Tefilah outdoors. A fragrance-free section was designated and page numbers were repeated for anyone who found these accommodations helpful. Name tags enabled each of us to greet each other personally and welcome new members and visitors. Three members spoke of their experience of inclusion at Beth El. As they shared their moving stories it was clear that some in the room were learning about these issues for the first time. Others spoke after services of their own experiences, and expressed gratitude for the openness of the speakers. Several commented that it made them feel safer to speak out themselves in the future.
Beth El’s middle schoolers, high schoolers and young adults participated in two related programs this past year. An improvisation troupe with a focus on mental health addressed stigma and ways that young people can learn from each other’s experience. A powerful interactive discussion enabled the teen participants to explore ways that young people can reach out, speak up and support each other. Thanks to a grant from Gateways, our younger teens were able to participate in a hands-on program about learning disabilities. Students in grades 4-6 explored different learning styles and reflected on their own. Both of these programs provided Beth El teens with a memorable opportunity to discover the differences and similarities that affect how each of us function in the world and in relationship with each other. These discussions will provide a springboard to further conversations in the coming year.
We are awaiting installation of pneumatic doors for one entrance of the building. This accessible entrance will make it easier for people with limited mobility to enter and exit the building, and will benefit everyone during inclement weather. Mechanically operated large button openers will also help people carrying heavy objects or equipment into the building!
As of this fall, Beth El’s education program will have flexible seating options and focus tools to help them stay on task and better engage in their learning. Specially designed chairs and standing desks will be available in several classrooms.