“We are all created in the image of God,” says Rabbi Barry Dov Katz of Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale (CSAIR), but it’s a “belief that often only gets tested when we come across people who are different.”

Students from CSAIR’s Hebrew school, which accommodates both children with disabilities and their typically developing peers, making Hannukah decorations. Photo courtesy of CSAIR.

CSAIR was one of three synagogues that received this year’s Synagogue Inclusion Awards, presented by UJA-Federation’s Caring Commission. Each year the award goes to synagogues that excel at creating welcoming and inclusive Jewish communities for people with disabilities, just one of many ways UJA-Federation works to strengthen synagogues. It is given out in February in celebration of Jewish Disability Awareness Month, and the congregations use award money to further improve their inclusive programming.

“While each year we honor a few synagogues for their distinguished work, we applaud all New York synagogues who strive to be inclusive, welcoming, and caring by embracing the diverse segments that make up our communities,” says Alexandra Roth-Kahn, managing director of UJA-Federation’s Caring Commission.

Creating Jewish communities that are accessible to people with disabilities can open a world of possibilities for those individuals and their families. Michelle Steinhart, the director of special student services at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, another of this year’s award recipients, shares the story of a family with two daughters that joined the synagogue. The older daughter was on the autism spectrum and until now the family “had not belonged to any synagogue because they were not comfortable joining a temple that really couldn’t provide any services to one of their children,” she says. “It felt like half their family was being left out. Now they feel like they have a place to go.”

Annette LaDue and her husband David joined CSAIR before their son Benny was born, and the synagogue started offering special needs Hebrew school classes when he was in elementary school, which his parents appreciated. “I think it made him feel good, and I think he learned from the experience, both academically and socially,” she says. “But I think he made the most progress in learning Hebrew and preparing for his bar mitzvah through his private tutoring sessions, and we are immensely grateful for those.”

The synagogues that received the award offer everything from inclusive Shabbat and holiday services, training for teen volunteers to shadow kids with special needs during services, bar/bat mitzvah preparation, self-contained and mainstream Hebrew school instruction, and educational events to raise community awareness on disability.

For Chabad of Stony Brook, the third winner of this year’s inclusion award, its core program doesn’t even take place inside the walls of the synagogue. The synagogue trains teens to fill what it feels is a largely unmet need for children with disabilities. There are programs that offer sports and activities and education, says Rabbi Shalom Ber Cohen, but far fewer programs that offer the chance to form close friendships.

The teens visit the children at home two hours each week to have fun together reading stories, baking, coloring, or even going for a walk, and Rabbi Cohen believes it’s just as important an experience for the teens. “Teenagers are used to not being on the stage in their life,” he says. “They’re used to being in the audience and listening to their parents, their therapists, teachers, and coaches, who are on the stage. Then comes the Friendship Circle when the stage is all theirs and they have the power to inspire, to connect.”

Each of the winning synagogues serves a broader community than just their synagogue membership. “No child from the Riverdale area, whether a member of our shul or not, should be denied a Jewish education,” Rabbi Katz says. “It’s just really important for these families because it’s so easy for them, since they are so overwhelmed with so much else, to just drop out of Jewish life.”