How USCJ’s Inclusion Action Community Impacted an Entire Congregation


When Congregation Beth Torah in Richardson, TX decided to embrace a new inclusion initiative, they hoped to make synagogue life more accessible to the physically and mentally challenged of their community.

But things went a little better than planned.

From electric doors at the main entrance to young teens coming back after their B’nai mitzvah to lead Shabbat Services, inclusion has led to a renaissance in synagogue culture.

Getting started with help from USCJ.

The initiative began in early 2015 when Beth Torah Rabbi Elana Zelony learned about the new USCJ Ruderman Inclusion Action Community. The program helps congregations devise action plans for inclusion, based on best practices.

With two weeks to apply, Rabbi Zelony asked longtime member and former congregation president, Zelene Lovitt, to take it on. Zelene had helped to raise a disabled grandchild and devoted her professional career to helping at-risk youth. She had also been vocal about how the lack of accommodations was leading to dwindling synagogue membership.

“Half our congregation is senior citizens,” Zelene observes. “They have mobility issues. Hearing difficulties. Parkinson’s. We needed to turn things around.”

USCJ Ruderman accepted the application and Zelene became the Congregation Beth Torah Inclusion Committee Chair. USCJ brought Zelene and a fellow congregant to a seminar to meet with experts and peers, learn about the issues they might face and the processes for making inclusion work.

Creating inclusion by consensus.

Beth Torah’s involvement in the USCJ Ruderman Inclusion Action Community motivated congregants to help the initiative succeed.

First order of business, a town hall meeting. Give a voice to every member who wants one. When a general agreement emerged around the need for electric doors, that became the first project.

“Everything the Inclusion Committee has done has been by consensus,” Zelene explains. “We have discussions and agree as a group on what’s needed and what to move forward with. We’ve never had to have a vote.”

When everybody’s involved, more gets done.

In just three years, the committee has added electric doors, upgraded bathrooms to exceed ADA (Americans with Disability Act) standards and installed streaming video for members who can’t attend services in person.

The Hebrew School now provides weekly one-on-one tutoring for all children grades 3-8, not just those with special needs. “Every child now has an opportunity to succeed.”

Congregation Beth Torah also has a quarterly “Inclusion Shabbat.” At one, the local Director of Jewish Family Services gave a reading, and a 38-year-old with Cerebral Palsy and his family gave the D’var Torah.

The Inclusion Committee has reached out to an agency that supports local residents with intellectual and developmental challenges, inviting these men and women to participate in the service. Each is partnered with a synagogue member and integrated into the congregation. They open and close the ark, carry the Torah and pass out wine at the Kiddush.

Building on the support of members.

Zelene’s committee has accomplished all this without any line item for inclusion in the synagogue budget.

After USCJ provided some early seed money, mainly for training, Beth Torah created an Inclusion Fund to pay for individual projects. Money comes from members, local businesses and membership groups like the congregation’s Senior Club. Rabbi Zelony may also contribute from her discretionary fund.

Some projects just require legwork, not money. For example, the committee invites area professionals to lead discussions about mental health, as well as “The Conversation Project” workshops, dealing with end-of-life issues.

The program to bring back young teens after their B’nai mitzvah to lead and participate in Shabbat services grew out of the Inclusion Initiative because Zelene and her colleagues felt it needed to be done.

“We really push the boundaries on what it means to be inclusive,” Zelene says.

The results speak for themselves. There have been 40 new memberships since the Inclusion Initiative began.

Now ready to help more congregations succeed.

Having accomplished so much in such a short time, Zelene was invited to present at USCJ Convention 2017 and the organization sponsored her trip. She now belongs to an active network of lay and professional inclusion specialists from many kehillot, and helps the USCJ Ruderman Inclusion Action Community train new synagogue cohorts.

“A lot of times people say, we don’t have those needs. Or we don’t have the money. It’s not a matter of money. It’s a matter of intent. You listen. You find out what’s needed. You start with something small and you build on it.”

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