A House of Prayer for All People


The following is a D’var Torah that was delivered by the chair of the Inclusion Committee at Congregation Etz Chaim in Marietta, GA. Congregation Etz Chaim is part of the current cohort of the Ruderman Inclusion Action Community.


Imagine preparing to attend your grandchild’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Your grandchild asks you to have an Aliyah at the service for that Shabbat morning. Imagine then, yours and your family’s disappointment when a week later you learn that because of your dependence on a wheelchair, you will not be able to access the bimah to have that honor.

Imagine a situation where you have come to shul for a program with a nationally recognized speaker. You have planned and been excited about this for weeks. When you get to the program however, you are disappointed to find out that due to your hearing disability, you are not able to make out the words of the lecturer’s speech.

Imagine attending religious school and while sitting in the classroom, you notice all your fellow students seemingly easily absorbing the lesson being taught. You, however, find your mind wandering, or find that even though you are working very hard and want to be successful, that your peers seem to be “getting it” much quicker and easier than you.

Imagine raising a son with all your love and attention, and to whom you give your heart and soul. One day you come home to find that your son has been secretly trying on his sister’s clothing with telltale signs of things missing from her room or hidden in his. You eventually learn that your son thinks of himself as a female. After months or years of counseling, you come to the belief that your child truly wants to be a female and identifies as such. How would you address this within your synagogue community? To whom would you share this information? What bathroom would your child use? What should be shared with peers? Who would share this information? Would your beloved child be taught not to share this information in public?

These are not far-out scenarios. In fact, they happen all the time. There are many examples of situations where, due to a variety of circumstances, people are not able to or comfortable with participation in their congregation. Services, religious school, social activities and adult education all have their own barriers.

As Jews we are taught to love the stranger. We may initially think of this as those we don’t know. But, it is not only possible, but very likely, that among those we do know, there are reasons that our fellow congregants feel excluded. Moses had a speech impediment. Would he have been welcomed into your congregation? The prophet Isiah wrote that God asked that “my house be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

In the Jewish community and especially at Congregation Etz Chaim, I believe that we truly have the desire to be inclusive. We already do much to promote inclusion. Examples include:

  • Special Ed intervention and coordination in the religious school
  • Accessible space in our outdoor sanctuary
  • New shelves of manipulatives for fidgety children in the sanctuary
  • Plans to build a ramp to the lower bimah
  • Plans to build a sound loop under the carpeting in the sanctuary which could be accessed by individuals with hearing assistance devices
  • And for those who were here to witness the Musaf service on Rosh Hashanah, the shul made the lower bimah accessible for a congregant with a degenerative neurological disease (as an aside, for me, this made my holiday and was a truly meaningful way to start the New Year)

These are all important but there is much more to be done. In previous studies, members of Jewish institutions have consistently taken the position, “We don’t have that problem here,” or “We know our community and what we need.” The truth is, while we are aware of some of the needs, we are not familiar with many. To borrow a quote from the old Chasidic movie Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” We want our congregation to be an obvious place of welcoming for all who want to participate. There are individuals in our Jewish community right now who do not participate because they are not fully able to, feel ostracized if they do, or are not aware of the opportunities that are available to them.

To that end, Etz Chaim applied for and received a grant from the Ruderman Family Foundation to be trained in and supported in the goals of inclusion. As a result, we have formed an Inclusion Committee. This is the committee that has sponsored and recently sent out the Inclusion survey to all of you.

Certain strategies will be easy to implement and won’t require any or very little financial output. As an example, please let us know if you need a ride to shul for services or programs; we are looking for individuals to volunteer to give those rides. Similarly, we would like you to let the shul know if you require assistance from your car. Other strategies may be more medium to long term goals, such as the purchasing of special equipment.

In the immediate sense, however, as a congregation, we can increase our awareness of social barriers to inclusion. Individuals who feel different for any reason may be less likely to participate. Our goal is not only to create an environment where more people can participate, but to foster an environment where each member has the opportunity to contribute, consistent with their wishes.

Imagine, instead of feeling left out or unable to keep up, that a student on the autism spectrum or with certain learning disabilities is able to feel educationally supported and appreciated within the Etz Chaim community. Imagine further that this child goes on to appreciate the warmth of our environment and becomes an active member who might even develop the capacity to take on leadership roles to the extent of their interest and abilities.

Imagine to a situation where individuals with hearing difficulties were able to benefit from a state-of-the-art sound and amplification system so that they could process auditory information from wherever they sat in the sanctuary, chapel or classroom. Imagine a situation where a senior who no longer drives or doesn’t feel comfortable driving at night could easily contact the shul and be connected to a ride for services or programming.

Imagine a situation where new members to our community are invited to join social events, committees, youth activities, and teams. Imagine them feeling included quickly and easily as opposed to feeling like it’s hard to break into certain cliques.

Imagine a gay or transgender teen who has been working to figure themselves out feeling like they had a home at Etz Chaim. Imagine the interfaith couple or family feeling like they are being welcomed rather than sometimes feeling alienated.

Imagine increased participation opportunities for those who can’t read Hebrew or understand rituals with, for example, transliterated books, Shabbat and holiday mentors, and Etz Chaim ambassadors.

These and much more are possible. Some already happens intermittently. The Etz Chaim Inclusion Committee is working to identify our needs, prioritize them, and set in place a process for evolution of our community. We all want Etz Chaim to feel welcoming. In truth, we have already taken many steps and we hope you will see more. We all benefit by each member of our community being able to participate to the level of their interest and potential.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak this morning. Please contact the shul with your recommendations for Inclusion and please fill out your surveys.

Shabbat Shalom.

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