Little Shul With the Big, Inclusive Heart


Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El in Elkins Park prides itself on being known as the “little shul with the big heart.” And its big heart continues to grow.

Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El in Elkins Park prides itself on being known as the “little shul with the big heart.”

And its big heart continues to grow.

In February, the synagogue was awarded a grant from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism that will enable it to focus efforts in the area of inclusion. The grant was awarded to 18 synagogues in the country courtesy of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which focuses on Jewish values and philanthropy as well as “advocating for and advancing the inclusion of people with disabilities throughout our society.”

Since the synagogue was awarded the grant, a committee formed that meets monthly to develop ideas for where the grant could help.

“The idea behind it is that the individual synagogues who receive the grant will create an action plan around inclusion with those with disabilities and begin to implement it,” explained Fran Sion, who serves as co-chair of the Inclusion Committee along with Honey Zazoff.

While it’s not a monetary grant, “what we get from the Ruderman [Family] Foundation is guidance and coaching to help us through the process,” Sion continued, “leadership training and development, networking and we will be visited by the inclusion specialist of the Ruderman Family Foundation. He will be going through our action plan with us, making suggestions and helping us to finalize it.”

As they brainstorm ways to implement the grant and make their synagogue more inclusive of their community, Sion said they have begun by assessing the existing strengths and weaknesses as far as the accessibility of the synagogue.

“We saw what our strengths are we also saw what our needs are,” she said, “and based on our needs, we are working on an action plan to meet those needs.”

The action plan will be presented to their board in September so they can start making changes. In the meantime, the committee — which comprises about seven members, as well as Rabbi Charles Sherman and Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer, director of Whole Community Inclusion at Jewish Learning Venture — has participated in webinars and received guidance and support from the grant.

Sion said they have come up with a few ideas but are still in the early stages of planning.

“We’re looking at installing in the sanctuary and in our social hall an assistive listening device for those who have difficulty hearing and, for that reason, perhaps are not coming to services as often as they might had they been able to hear more clearly,” she said, adding this is just one example of what they have come up with so far.

Already, however, the synagogue has a few advantages. It’s on one level, which makes it easier for those who might find stairs challenging; there are parking spots right in front of the building; and they have detachable chairs in the sanctuary to easily accommodate those who use a wheelchair or walker and can still sit with the congregation.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t more they can — and want to — do, Sion said.

The goal is to create an environment where anyone who wants to participate in synagogue life can without difficulty.

“We hope it will enable those who have not been able to fully participate, who have not been able to come because of access issues or certain accommodations we have not been able to offer, we’re hoping focusing on these concerns will enable those who have not been able to come regularly to begin to come,” Sion said. “We feel that everyone who is able to participate contributes greatly to the richness of the congregation, and we want to fully include everyone.”

For Rabbi Sherman, the grant has a personal element.

When his youngest son, Eyal, was 4 years old, he became a quadriplegic and ventilator-dependent after suffering a stroke. Sherman has written about his story and continued to make advocacy for inclusion part of his life narrative.

So, of course, being a rabbi at a synagogue that was awarded a grant focused on that very mission must be fulfilling.

For him, he’s seeing the conversation expand, which is most important.

“It’s pretty much an accessible kind of building, very, very much so,” he said, “but I think what it does for Melrose is it puts us really in a conversation that talks about the whole idea of inclusion and it broadens the conversation.

“It’s not just about ramps. It’s not just about access to bathrooms and hearing enhance-

ments — and all those are important — but I’ve already seen how the conversation has become much more profound in terms of, how do we become a more inclusive community and how do you define someone who has a challenge. Already what I’ve noticed is that the definition is much broader. Much, much broader.”

A lot of that conversation has to do with the synagogue being willing to actually have it, which they are.

The synagogue is celebrating its 60th anniversary, Sherman remarked, and having a congregation that is still willing to change and adapt is telling of the kind of congregants it has.

“In the Jewish world today there are mergers of synagogues, synagogues struggling with membership,” he observed, “but here’s a congregation that has a rich history but is willing to say, ‘OK fine, not just how do we create ourselves, but how do we respond to these challenges we all deal with.’”

As they continue planning how to use the grant and create an environment of full inclusion, Sherman reiterated how important it is to think of the bigger picture and essence of what inclusion really means.

There are still battles that take place — especially in the political sphere — as far as inclusion of those with disabilities, he said, and he’s been there as not just a rabbi but also a father. But that’s why this grant and the work they’ll be able to do is so important.

“Simply, this is not about ramps, this is not about hearing enhancements or larger prayer books or handicapped parking spots. This is a message much greater,” he said. “It’s a philosophy. It’s how do you create a great community — that’s what it’s about: community.”

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