Embracing Inclusion at Temple Emanuel

Remarks by Jerry Jacobs, chair of the B’Tselem Inclusion Committee
During the visit of Rabbi Julia Watts Belser, April 22, 2017

Shabbat shalom. Thanks, Rabbi Watts Belser, for your inspiring words. My work as committee chair has been made easier by partnering with Wes, Michelle, Aliza, Dan, Mady, Ilene, and Deb, as well as the amazing, hard-working committee and Temple Emanuel staff.

I am often asked to explain our long committee title, the B’Tselem Inclusion Committee. B’Tselem is short for “B’Tselem Elohim,” which means “in God’s image.” We are all created in God’s image. Inclusion is more difficult to define—for us it’s a welcoming embrace of individuals with all abilities.

A recent Shabbat Alive service reflected an image of inclusion; the music volume was lowered so as not to be overwhelming to participants with sensory sensitivities. A child “sang” in her own enthusiastic way and was complimented on her singing by the Rabbi and Cantor. That night, kids were told to, “Walk, take the ramp, or run up to the bimah.” Additionally, this past Purim, we experienced the joy of children diagnosed with ADHD, autism, and sensory issues celebrating with peers in a quiet, predictable, hands-on Jewish classroom, enhanced by Deb, our librarian, reading Purim stories.

Our committee was funded by a grant from the Ruderman Family Foundation through CJP, with additional generous support from Temple Emanuel. The work began last March consisting of a group of passionate advocates and Temple staff, many with family members with disabilities. The meetings were always lively. It was the continuation of a previous B’Tselem committee effort. You are welcome to join our committee, as we begin thinking about next year’s efforts.

We agreed to four goals for the year, and we’ve made notable progress on them. First, building accessibility. Mary Ann, thanks for opening our eyes wide open during the walkthrough. You can now see improved access in many rooms, the repainted stairs with large yellow and black lines added for better visibility, outdoor signage pointing out parking and ramp access for those with disabilities, and automatic-opening internal doors facing Ward Street.

Second, raising awareness about inclusion through Torah study. We are blessed with the opportunity of spending this weekend studying Torah about Jewish Values and Disability Awareness at this first congregational Shabbaton focused on inclusion.

Third, increasing accessibility to worship, learning, and social activities for children, teens, and young adults with mental health and learning issues. We have begun to reach out via sensory-friendly Simchat Torah and Purim services. Our youth department hosted a speaker on PTSD in Israel. The Religious School now has funding for more classroom assistants, to improve learning for all students.  Michelle and Aliza each gave sermons touching on these issues, one about teen suicide prevention awareness and the other on the impact of living with a family member with mental illness.

Fourth, we have begun raising awareness about food allergy and sensitivities. We reviewed our current food policy, and extended inclusion through expanded menus and food options at three Shabbat dinners.

Two goal areas need more work: building accessibility and mental wellness.

Building changes we still need include inside and outside signage, and Ward Street curb modifications. In addition, we need to improve accessibility for worship during the High Holidays, when services are held outside the main sanctuary in Adelson and in the Chapel service in Reisman.

Our committee, congregational leadership, and staff must work on improving mental wellness. I urge that we reach out to children, teens, and young adults and their families. A plan of action is needed that addresses the mental health needs of member families beginning with the intake process for new members, and continuing through education, programming, worship, and engagement. There are already good local models for us to emulate.

Shabbat shalom.