Today is December 15, 2017 -

Making Beth El a More Inclusive and Welcoming Community

By Rabbi Steven Abraham

There is a wonderful story told in Tractate Ta’anit 20a-b about Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar, who studied Torah from Rabbi Meir, and returned home completely caught up in the joy of his studies, which consumed his entire character: he happened upon a man who was extremely ugly. The man said, “Shalom to you, Rabbi!” Rabbi Simeon did not reply. Instead he exclaimed, “Idiot! How ugly that man is! Could it be that all the people of your city are as ugly as you?” The man said, “I do not know, why not go to the Artisan who made me, and tell Him, ‘How ugly that vessel is that You made!’” When Rabbi Simeon realized that he had done wrong, he dismounted from his donkey and fell down at the man’s feet, saying, “I fully accept – please forgive me.” “I will not forgive you,” said the man, “until you go to that Artist who made me and tell him, ‘How ugly that vessel is that You made.’” [From Disability and Judaism: Society’s Influence on Halacha – Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Lau]

This rabbinic tale touches the surface of a conversation we as a congregation must have on the topic of inclusion. Just as Rabbi Simeon made certain judgements, we do the same in our everyday lives. The most important thing we can do is make our congregation a place that embraces everyone, regardless of their ability.

In January, Beth El was accepted into a new initiative put together in partnership with United Synagogue (USCJ) and the Ruderman Family Foundation. This new action community has the goal of transforming Conservative congregations into truly inclusive communities for people with disabilities. This is an important and much needed step for our congregation, and I am thrilled that Bob Wolfson has agreed to chair this new program. While our work towards being a more inclusive congregation will never stop, the program has been designed as a 3- year commitment with workshops, conferences, webinars and visits from top professionals in the field.

Beth El’s involvement with the action community began with a conference in New York this past March, with 25 or more Conservative congregations. Through this partnership between Beth El, USCJ and the Ruderman Foundation, we will receive expertise and consulting to develop a comprehensive vision and action plan on inclusion. This effort aims to enhance Beth El’s culture to support all aspects of inclusion – from the entryway to the bima, from education programs to prayer services, from social activities to the very attitudes of congregants and leaders – allowing people with disabilities and their families to participate fully and comfortably in congregational life.

While we have started a list of action items, we will also be sending out a short survey to the congregation. The goal of this survey is to learn more about our current experiences and areas we need to address. We are asking all members of Beth El Synagogue to anonymously share information about any specific needs on this survey. What we learn will help us formulate short- and long-term goals for our congregation – and hopefully highlight changes we can make so that Beth El will be a more inclusive and welcoming community.

The survey will be available online as well in hard copy. In addition, if you would prefer to have someone call you and read the questions, arrangements can be made as well.

This is a much-needed step in our journey as a synagogue. I look forward to discussing our findings and the steps we are taking to make Beth El a more inclusive synagogue over the next year.