By Dan Horowitz-- UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s inclusion initiative Itanu Toronto was born from the belief that a community should always welcome and include people with special needs.
After all, social inclusion reflects values that are inherent to Jewish Life: Derech Eretz (respectful behaviour); Chesed (compassion for the disadvantaged and the vulnerable);K'vod Habriot (encouraging dignity for all), and Tikkun Olam (repairing the world and making it a better place).
Overseen by UJA Federation’s Itanu Committee, which is comprised entirely of volunteers dedicated to raising awareness throughout the community, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto has overseen the mobilization of the synagogue community to make a special effort to include people with disabilities and their families through Shabbat Itanu, an annual community-wide event.
Shabbat Itanu 2015 is chaired by Daniel Schild.
“I am very pleased that a record number of synagogues participated in Shabbat Itanu this year,” said Schild. “Participants not only included congregations from the four major denominations but also a growing number of independent unaffiliated shuls. Programming marking Shabbat Itanu covered a wide range of inclusion concerns such as children's issues such as autism and mental issues of teens reflected in eating disorders to challenges of sight and mobility. Our congregations understand and affirm that a synagogue must be open and accessible to the whole community not only on Shabbat Itanu but throughout the year.”
This year, 32 synagogues throughout the GTA participated in this vital event, each one responsible for creating their own unique and innovative programs.
Shaarei Shomayim Congregation, which recently completed extensive renovations in order to be more accessible to all, partnered with Camp AIM– a therapeutic camp for children of all abilities - for Shabbat Itanu.
“Camp AIM campers join our youth groups and integrate in games and stories with other children,” said Rabbi Chaim Strauchler. “They joined us at the end of services where they led us in Adon Olam and HaMalach along with the youth program. Accessibility was one of the four principles that guided our renovation project. We believe that regardless of ability, all people should have access to the Torah and synagogue life. The renovation included a full reconfiguration of our front entry way with a patio and integrated ramp; a beautiful new bimah with ramping that allows a person in a wheel chair to come up for an Aliyah; a Torah table that can be lowered to allow a person in a wheel chair to look into the Torah when receiving an Aliyah; an accessible aron kodesh to allow those in a wheel chair the honour of opening the ark; and a Shabbat elevator.”
“At Temple Sinai, we are proud to share in Shabbat Itanu and celebrate our synagogue’s commitment to inclusion while also acknowledging that there is always more to learn and room to grow,” says Rabbi Michael Dolgin. “It is a time where we can highlight speakers and programs that focus on Jewish values of acceptance, equality, and inclusiveness. This year we did so by inviting our member and new CEO of Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation hospital to give a moving and meaningful d’var torah for Shabbat Itanu.”
“For several years, Beth Emeth has participated in Shabbat Itanu, going back to the inception of the program,” says Rabbi Howard Morrison. “Each year, we pay tribute to the participants, caregivers, professionals and volunteers of our Kadimah program, which was started over forty years ago by the late Rabbi Joseph Kelman, of blessed memory. Our shul recognizes and honors individuals with special needs and exceptionalities. How appropriate that the Torah portion this year, Kedoshim, contained such precepts as ‘do not curse the deaf,’ and ‘do not place a stumbling block before the blind.’ Sadly, it is often the majority of society that is blind or deaf to the needs of our special members.”
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