Making GTA synagogue life accessible and inclusive


On Monday November 18, 2013, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, through Itanu Toronto, made significant inroads in achieving its mission- to create opportunities for including people with special needs in Jewish life in the GTA. Through workshops and meetings, Shelley Cohen, parent, advocate and founder of the Jewish Inclusion Project, met with over 20 rabbis and clergy members from across the religious denominational spectrum. Her presentations sensitized rabbis to practical actions steps that synagogues can take to make their congregations accessible, inviting and open to people within the Jewish community of all levels of ability.

“Including people with special needs must be understood as a  Jewish imperative, not just an act of kindness” says Cohen, who was overwhelmed by the commitment of Toronto’s Jewish community to inclusion demonstrated by the strong attendance and enthusiasm and interest demonstrated at each of her presentations. Cohen began her journey for inclusion of people with disabilities twenty years ago when her son Nathaniel was diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. Nate died almost six and half years ago at the age of 21. Shelley has continued along this path in order to ensure that the Nate’s  passion for inclusion in Jewish communal institutions opens doors for others. She has developed a multi-day training program about inclusion with Rabbi Dov Linzer of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah that is now being offered in four rabbinical training programs in North America.

In the evening, Cohen spoke at a workshop hosted by Itanu Toronto for synagogue volunteers involved in planning their programs for Shabbat Itanu which this year takes place on March 21 and 22, 2014. Shabbat Itanu  is an annual event initiated by UJA Federation that invites synagogues throughout the GTA to highlight during this special Shabbat the importance of reaching out to and including people with special needs in synagogue life. Each synagogue is invited to develop plans that are workable and affordable for them. UJA Federation and Itanu supports this initiative by providing training for volunteers, networking opportunities and information for organizers of Shabbat Itanu in various synagogues.

The evening workshop allowed volunteers to hear first hand from Shelley about the challenges she and her family faced in being included in Jewish schools, synagogues and camps and how those challenges were addressed and sometimes overcome. A facilitated workshop followed with small breakout sessions focusing upon developing plans by over 50 Shabbat Itanu volunteers representing 21 synagogues and institutions in Toronto. “Having people representing all streams of Judaism working together to improve inclusion in the Jewish community and helping each other with ideas for Shabbat Itanu programs is a major accomplishment” says Danny Schild, Chair, Shabbat Itanu 2014.

For more information please contact Robin Gofine, Vice President, Strategic Community Planning and Engagement, UJA, rgofine@ujafed.org.

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