Everyone can pray together

Everyone can pray together

Teaneck shul offers inclusive Chanukah minyan for families with specialized needs

Men daven at Rinat Yisrael’s inclusive minyan last year.
Men daven at Rinat Yisrael’s inclusive minyan last year.

There’s a distinction between inclusion and “chesed” — the Jewish value of kindness — according to Dr. Stephen Glicksman, director of clinical innovation at Makor Care and Services Network in Brooklyn.

And that distinction is beautifully demonstrated through the inclusive minyan that he initiated last Chanukah at his home shul, Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael.

The second annual inclusive minyan -– advertised “for people with specialized needs, their families, friends, and fans” –- is set for Sunday, December 25, at 9 a.m.

Often, a child with, say, cerebral palsy will be called to the bimah to recite the blessings over the Torah on his bar mitzvah but may never get such an aliyah again, in the mistaken assumption that he would find it too difficult. Or there may be families that rarely attend shul together because of one family member’s differences.

“This minyan aims to give everyone, with and without specialized needs, boys and girls, men and women, the opportunity to pray together in a welcoming, accessible, sensory-aware atmosphere,” Dr. Glicksman said.

Now, if this event were meant as a chesed project — just a nice thing to do — it would make more sense to hold the minyan monthly, if not weekly. But this is where the distinction between chesed and inclusion becomes clear, Dr. Glicksman explained.

These are all scenes from last year’s inclusive minyan. Women were there too; some are visible on the other side of the mechitzah.

“The goal is for people to come and see what people with specialized needs can do, and then include them at a higher level in every minyan, every week and every day,” he said.

“At last year’s inclusive minyan, someone got an aliyah who has autism and comes to shul every week with his family but doesn’t necessarily get an aliyah. And he did it beautifully. I’m sure most of the people in shul don’t even know he can talk.”

At the same time, he emphasized, the yearly inclusion minyan also lets people who have trouble fitting in at shul participate in a davening that is fully tolerant of their differences.

“So many people with specialized needs are excluded from davening with a minyan because they might appear to others to be disruptive, either because of the sounds they make or because they need to walk around a bit, or because they might need a little extra attention,” he said.

Last year’s inclusive minyan drew so many participants that the furniture had to be moved around to make more space for people, he noted.

The inclusive-on-Chanukah minyan is open to everyone at all levels of ability, of any age.

The refreshments will include gluten-free Chanukah donuts, “but if you have dietary or other needs we may not anticipate, please register and let us know,” online at www.rinat.org/form/inclusive-minyan or by phone at (718) 853-0900.

“And if you don’t register, please come anyway and bring your friends,” Dr. Glicksman added.

He encourages participation.

“If you would like to get aliyah or take part some other way, let us know so we can coordinate, and you’ll have time to practice,” Dr. Glicksman said.

Because Rinat Yisrael is an Orthodox synagogue, teenage girls or women cannot lead prayers or get an aliyah, but they can volunteer to present a Torah talk at the end of services.

Makor Care and Services Network, founded in 1978 as Women’s League Community Residences in Brooklyn, is a lifespan social services organization serving Jewish and non-Jewish people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families through group homes, supportive employment, early intervention, and other programs aimed at community inclusion.

“We also have the Makor College Experience partnership program with Yeshiva University,” Dr. Glicksman said. This three-year, non-degree program for young men with intellectual disabilities, typically from 18 to 25 years old, is held at YU’s Washington Heights campus.

Dr. Glicksman said Makor has clients from Bergen County in its programs and is aiming to expand its services to reach clients elsewhere in New Jersey.

He has observed, from his vantage point in Teaneck, that “over the years, the Bergen County community has become very inclusive and welcoming of people of all levels of ability, and Rinat in particular is well known for its inclusion programs.”

Rinat’s youth department has a shadowing program, and that program is a model for inclusion throughout the country, Dr. Glicksman said. When the congregation expanded its building in 2010, new features included such subtle but important details as universally accessible sinks, so nobody has to go to a special sink to wash their hands just because they use a wheelchair. The sanctuary has carved-out pews and a hinged bimah enabling people in wheelchairs to sit anywhere and get an aliyah and read from the Torah even while seated.

“Everyone feels welcome,” Dr. Glicksman said, adding that thoughtful design details always benefit people beyond those from whom they were intended. Ramps for wheelchairs, for example, also accommodate baby strollers.

“We are excited to join Makor in hosting an inclusive Chanukah minyan for families with specialized needs,” Rabbi Chaim Strauchler, the spiritual leader of Congregation Rinat Yisrael, said.

“We strive to make all our services open to everyone, but we know that a regular service can be challenging. Chanukah is about spreading awareness for the small miracles. There are miracles in each of our lives. We often just need to be helped to see them.

“May this special davening opportunity help all of us do so just a little more.”

If other synagogues are interested in sponsoring inclusive services, Dr. Glicksman would be glad to talk to their representatives. Email him at sglicksman@makords.org.

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