One of the things we miss during this time of isolation is the ability to walk safely through open doors, whether those doors open onto restaurants, shops, or the homes of friends.
Welcoming guests is not only a mitzvah, it provides pleasure for both the host and the visitor. And sometimes, according to Meredith Ross of Randolph — whose synagogue, Adath Shalom in Morris Plains, has hosted a monthly program for adults with developmental disabilities for the last five years — the host receives the greater gift.
“It’s really magical, transcendent,” Ms. Ross said. “You feel the presence of the Divine. People are so appreciative. It gives you such a warm feeling to be able to make a difference.”
Minyan attendees — a group of people who generally don’t walk through synagogue doors, even when covid is not a factor — have developed a strong relationship with synagogue members. Working with Jewish Services for the Developmentally Disabled, which has group homes across Morris and Essex Counties, as well as with other group homes and with people who live at home, the Open Door Minyan generally hosts more than 20 guests for Shabbat services every month. They come from towns including Livingston, Passaic, West Caldwell, Verona, Millburn, Maplewood, and Parsippany. Sometimes, Ms. Ross said, there are as many as 40 people at the minyan.
Now, of course, Open Door Shabbat minyanim, like so many others, are virtual. But that has not decreased the enthusiasm of members or volunteers. The volunteers, including both seniors and teenagers, “have developed strong bonds with their Open Door Minyan Family,” according to Ms. Ross, whose daughter, 13-year-old Hayley, originally adopted the minyan as her bat mitzvah project. So did her friend Sofie Tepperman, now 15; both girls have chosen to continue their volunteer work.
“They look different, but really they’re just like us,” Ms. Ross reports that her daughter told her. “She doesn’t see them very differently. She looks forward to doing it. I feel like they learn tolerance, appreciation of differences, and patience. Volunteers get as much enjoyment from it as guests do. You can see it on their faces. They love being greeted and hugged.”
Minyan gatherings begin with Shabbat morning services, followed by a kiddush lunch, music, and a craft project. The group, started in 2015 by synagogue members Sue Rosenthal and Deborah Berlinsky, was the brainchild of the shul’s Rabbi Moshe Rudin, who knew of a similar program in Essex County.
The Open Minyan service, run parallel to the Conservative synagogue’s main service, uses prayer books adapted to follow the Picture Exchange Communication System; the PECS system allows people with few or no communication skills to communicate using pictures instead of words. After services, Open Minyan participants join the other congregants for music, and then they meet separately again as they work on projects adapted to each one’s abilities. The morning ends with a kiddush luncheon.
The synagogue has gotten an increasing number of group homes to participate in the Open Door Minyan. Usually, attendees come with a home attendant or nurse. “There are varying special needs,” Ms. Ross said. “Some have wheelchairs.” Because Adath Shalom was modeled for accessibility, the building already has ramps to accommodate wheelchairs. “Some are on strict diets or have autism,” she continued. “One participant uses a communication system, like a computer,” to talk to other people.
The congregation has not yet obtained Braille prayer books. “We don’t have that yet,” Ms. Ross said. One regular attendee is blind; “I don’t know if he can read Braille, but he can follow along in the service.” So far, no formal fundraising has been undertaken to support this minyan, but plans for this are in the works. “We’d like to expand,” Ms. Ross said.
Attendees are excited to see one another, whether in person or on the computer screen. “They know each other and greet one another by name,” she said. “They look forward to seeing each other. They share personal experiences, losses. As each guest joins the Zoom, each square on the screen comes alive with smiling faces, waves, virtual hugs, and greetings which say it all.
“In these unpredictable times, the Adath Shalom Open Door Minyan has been something predictable and counted on as an important part of everyone’s schedule.”
If anything has surprised Ms. Ross, it’s that “it’s grown to be so big. And the most amazing thing is to be able to continue through the pandemic.” Despite the inability to work with guests on crafts projects, “you still feel the warmth and joy.”
Congregant Michael Landau — who is referred to as “rabbi” but is not an ordained spiritual leader; instead, he’s experienced in working with developmentally disabled adults — leads the service. “He always has people laughing,” Ms. Ross said. Whenever possible, minyan participants recite the blessings for their aliyot; those who cannot stand under a tallit that is held overhead as someone says it for them. Everyone is given an opportunity to stand in front of the Torah.
Divrei Torah are adapted by member Sue Rosenthal, who discusses the weekly parsha, using pictures to help attendees understand the message. Rabbi Rudin “brings along his musical accompaniment, much to the delight of our guests, who sing, clap, and dance along,” Ms. Ross said. Not all attendees are Jewish, but they do their best to follow along.
Ms. Ross notes that the minyan is only possible because of the close working relationship between shul volunteer Bonnie Rosenthal and Hagit Oren, the Judaic coordinator of Jewish Services for the Developmentally Disabled of the Federation of Greater MetroWest.
This year, the synagogue organized a “Chai Holiday Parade” for Rosh Hashanah, “with a caravan of volunteers driving more than 70 miles throughout Essex and Morris County to homes and residences delivering packages of apples, honey, challah, our interactive prayer book, virtual hugs, and even shofar blowing and a sing-along with Rabbi Rudin,” Ms. Ross said.
She is clearly proud of her congregation. “We try to foster inclusion, with no one left out of the Jewish religious experience, and we also allow them to have social opportunities that may not have been offered by a synagogue or church,” she said. “It’s not always easy to find activities that are appropriate. We pride ourselves on being able to offer this not just to Morris County but beyond, to foster acceptance and diversity and appreciation of individuals as they are.”
The Open Door Minyan usually meets on the first Saturday of each month. The next one is scheduled for Saturday, January 9. For information, email Bonnie Rosenthal at firstname.lastname@example.org.