by Zelene Lovitt
We Are All Part of the Fabric of Jewish Life Here in Dallas. We All Count.
For those who are unaffiliated with a synagogue (or even for those who are), there is a message from each shul in the Greater Dallas area that says, “We are the best. Come join us. Come help support us financially. Come volunteer. Come…come…come.”
Of course, each synagogue has wonderful attributes with much to offer. But the bottom line is to find the one that matches your needs, that is the right one for you. This is especially important if you are statistically part of the 20% of the United States population that has challenges preventing you from successfully engaging in that shul. Let’s talk about one synagogue’s journey in meeting people’s diverse needs.
Three years ago, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism selected sixteen member congregations in North America in conjunction with the Ruderman Family Foundation to address inclusion efforts. Congregation Beth Torah in Richardson was selected to receive guidance on serving diverse populations. Rabbi Elana Zelony encouraged members to undertake this challenge and they did. The mission of the Inclusion Initiative is to remove any and all barriers to comfortable and successful participation in synagogue life. This covers a wide range of challenges.
Initially, Beth Torah perceived itself as having few, if any, members or visitors dealing with challenges preventing them from engaging freely in synagogue life. It quickly became obvious that this was not the case. Rather than focusing strictly on expensive physical efforts dependent on donations, the Inclusion Initiative worked to effect a culture change generating awareness of needs and a dedication of its membership to helping everyone who crossed the threshold have his and her needs met.
Several basic values were adopted. First, almost every offering is open to people in the community. Individuals do not have to be members of Congregation Beth Torah to participate in events. Everyone — Jews, Gentiles, gay and straight, special needs and neuro-typical, unaffiliated or already affiliated — is welcome.
Second, whatever is undertaken is congregant driven. That means members get a say in what happens, get to uncover needs for the Inclusion Initiative committee to address. Basically, Congregation Beth Torah is committed to sensitivity and caring for both its members as well as the greater community. Its members drive its undertakings
Third, everything involving a cost, mostly related to facility upgrading, is based on freely given donations. Members are not charged annual fees for inclusion purposes. Guests do not have to worry about costs. There are no fees to participate in Inclusion Initiative programming. Ever. Members consistently and generously donate to the Inclusion Fund because they see the benefits of doing so. We sincerely thank them and appreciate their support.
Let me say that the Inclusion Initiative has been highly successful across a range of issues. United Synagogue recognized Beth Torah last year for its outstanding efforts and accomplishments. How has the shul earned this recognition, what has in fact been accomplished, and what does the Inclusion Initiative offer to you?
Having an increasing aging population means that people bring a variety of challenges to the table. Mobility issues seem to be at the top of the list for this demographic and so the first item tackled were handicapped accessible doors for the front entrance and for the main bathrooms. Just recently as a follow up, an external ramp with additional handicapped accessible doors were added to the building as were extra banisters for getting on and off the main sanctuary bimah. Bathrooms were modified to exceed ADA requirements.
Not to ignore our youngsters, the religious school Learning Center instituted weekly tutorials for every student in order to provide support and enrichment. A modified individual plan drives this one-on-one period of instruction. Some students have special needs and/or learning challenges; some do not. Nevertheless, attention is provided for all students.
It is not always easy to acknowledge that we experience emotional needs. Each year, sessions have been offered dealing with personal issues. They have included depression, anxiety, anger management, learning disabilities, and suicide. Professionals, including those from Jewish Family Service, have led those informative and supportive offerings. Proudly, members and non-members have chosen to attend. Currently, a series addressing addictions—e.g., eating disorders, drug and alcohol, exercise, body shaming—is being developed and will continue to be open to the community.
Reaching out to and being involved with Federation, Jewish Family Service, the Halliburton Foundation, Community Homes for Adults, Inc., The Conversation Project, Temple Emanu-El, and other organizations or agencies only strengthens our efforts as well as theirs. Providing information about community resources for a multiplicity of needs helps individuals know where to turn when they are perhaps stymied in tapping into supports.
What do these programs and approaches reflect? Being an integral part of the community, connecting with the heart and soul of our brothers and sisters shouldn’t happen primarily when a shooter attacks fellow Jews in Pittsburgh or when anti-Semitic statements abound on the Internet. Reaching out to people should be and is something we live and breathe on a daily basis.
Remember when I wrote, “come…come…come”? Well, we invite you to come…come…come explore what is available at Congregation Beth Torah in Richardson regarding inclusion. If your synagogue is interested in piggybacking on our efforts, we are happy to share ideas. We have done that nationally with other shuls and would be happy to work with you. Direct inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Zelene Lovitt is a writer and award-winning program developer especially in the area of reading education. She is a past president of Congregation Beth Torah, NCJW Evening Branch, and the North Texas Reading Association. Zelene has lived in Dallas for over 50 years with her husband, Robert, and is the mother of Avra, Steven, and Benjamin as well as the grandmother of Devon, Jordan, Hannah and Rachel.