B’nai Amoona’s inclusion efforts in the national spotlight

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Congregation B’nai Amoona is set to receive a major honor and a significant cash prize in honor of its longstanding inclusiveness efforts.

“I’m proud of our community and I’m proud of what we’ve done,” said Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose, “but I’m even more excited about what it is that we’re going to do going forward because my sense is that we’ve only just begun.”

The local Conservative institution has been selected as one of five honorees worldwide to be given the Ruderman Family Foundation’s prize which recognizes Jewish organizations for disability inclusiveness. Surprisingly, B’nai Amoona is the first synagogue in the two-year history of the award to win it. Other awardees this year included an Israeli education organization, a Maryland bakery and schools in South Africa and Argentina.

Last year’s award, which came with a $20,000 prize went to ten organizations including an Israeli dance company, a Jewish Community Center in San Diego and a British philanthropy.

This year’s honor, which saw nearly 250 applications, comes with a $50,000 prize.

Jennifer Newfeld, director of congregational learning at the synagogue said that B’nai Amoona talked extensively in its application about its special needs education efforts in the early childhood and religious schools as well as in its summer camps and youth groups.

“It’s really an amazing thing to be part of an institution that has that belief because so many Jewish institutions are behind the curve when it comes to inclusion and people with disabilities and making them feel a part of the community,” she said.

The congregation has also worked hard to make the building itself accessible from the bimah to the sidewalks. There are devices to help the hearing-impaired and religious services – as well as some adult education classes – are live streamed for those for whom travel is difficult.

Accessibility is also a theme for b’nai mitzvot, which are geared towards children of all abilities, including those who are non-verbal or face other challenges.

“Going very far back, there were some very strong individuals who had children with different disabilities who felt strongly that they should have a Jewish community,” said Newfeld. “They really pushed the agenda to include all children and asked ‘What would that look like?’”

Foundation president Jay Ruderman feels it might look a lot like B’nai Amoona. He lauded the organization as one that excels in making inclusion a part of their everyday activities. 

“Congregation B’nai Amoona stood out to us as a shining example of how a synagogue can strive and succeed in including people with disabilities,” Ruderman said via an email statement to the Jewish Light.  “As a central address for Jewish life, we believe that all synagogues across the globe can learn from Congregation B’nai Amoona’s innovation in inclusion.”

Larry Opinsky, president of B’nai Amoona’s inclusion committee, said he was thrilled with the news. For his family, inclusion is more than just a value. It is a part of daily life. Opinsky’s 13-year-old daughter Lilly has Rett Syndrome, a genetic disorder generally considered to be a form of autism.

It was Lilly whose recent bat mitzvah pictures were included as part of the synagogue’s application package.

“Lilly has been fully included in every bit and piece of B’nai Amoona life that we’ve come across,” said Opinsky. “It certainly is a big driving factor for me to want to stay involved and help other families and the congregation.”

Opinsky notes that people are often fearful or uncomfortable with those who face physical or mental challenges.

“As the population ages, we understand that disability is a natural occurrence,” he said. “It’s not something to be feared or worried about. It’s something to be embraced.”

Meanwhile, the congregation isn’t done embracing that concept. Newfeld said that, thanks to Jewish Federation support, they are about to become involved with Rosh Pina, a California-based special needs certification program.

“It’s a very individual process,” said Newfeld of the yearlong program. “They come and do an environmental scan and they help you figure out how you want to improve your own areas of inclusion.”

She said that B’nai Amoona is the first synagogue outside the Bay Area to embark on the recently piloted process. They will also begin work with Matan, a New York group that helps students with special needs in religious school environments.

The synagogue has also focused more generally on the concept of inclusion holding special Shabbats in recent years looking at marginalized communities, from Jewish prison populations to those who face difficulties because of sexual orientation.

Newfeld said it had not yet been determined how the Ruderman windfall would be spent.

“I know we are involved in several ways of working towards improving what we do,” she said. “We think we do a good job but there is still a long way to go. I’m sure we’ll find good ways to put the money to use.”

Rabbi Rose said inclusion was central to his vision of B’nai Amoona from the start.

“We want to be the kind of place and we believe ourselves to be the kind of place that sees ourselves as  a spiritual home for any Jews who want to connect with their Judaism,” he said.

Rose said that inclusion goes beyond simply disabilities which is why the synagogue has chosen to be involved with immigration issues such as those faced by Russian Jews. Today, B’nai Amoona also hosts the Israeli House, a cultural institution that helps natives of the Jewish State who reside here.

“No less than 36 times in the Torah does it say that you have to take care of the stranger because you were a stranger in a strange land,” he said. “Metaphorically, those who have been marginalized are surely strangers in a strange land.”

Rose said he now looks forward to the future, something that B’nai Amoona would do with or without a prize.

“The money is wonderful but what’s even better is that it gives us the opportunity to continue the work that we are involved with,” he said.