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Shuls hear call of those with special needs
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Shuls hear call of those with special needs

Orthodox synagogues join national initiative to foster inclusion

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

 

When the Purim story is read in synagogues, it is customary to drown out the name of the evil Haman with a cacophony of noisemakers, boos, and catcalls.

At Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob and David in West Orange, however, another way to experience the story of Esther and Haman is used: a PowerPoint program projecting images of the villain, who is “blotted out” by a series of animated creatures.

The synagogue began offering the PowerPoint five years ago for congregants who are deaf, hard of hearing, or have other special needs. Developed by Yachad/The National Jewish Council for Disabilities, it is an example of the way Orthodox congregations are addressing the religious and social needs of populations that were once marginalized.

To date, over 200 congregations have purchased the program.

“We originally developed it for the deaf and hard of hearing, but we’ve found that it has really helped people with visual issues, particularly the elderly and young kids,” said Batya Jacob, the educational director of Yachad, an agency of the Orthodox Union.

The PowerPoint program isn’t the only inclusion activity afoot locally. That’s because Yachad has declared February North American Inclusion Month, or NAIM. More than 50 communities around North America have signed up to coordinate NAIM programming.

Congregations in a number of New Jersey communities are participating, including Deal, Flanders, Livingston, Montclair, New Brunswick, Ocean, Piscataway, Princeton Junction, Springfield, West Orange, and White Meadow Lake.

Yachad estimates that one in five Americans have some sort of disability, and almost one million Jews have to overcome some barrier to be included in Jewish life. “NAIM will help countless communities across the United States and Canada to become more aware and more proactive in facilitating the inclusion of the many ‘able’ children and adults who have challenges but who want to be a part of the community,” said Jeffrey Lichtman, director of Yachad, in a statement. “NAIM will help enrich and ennoble our communities in ways that are so desperately needed in these troubled times.”

One of the most popular of these programs is a sensitivity training workshop introduced in 2011.

Students rotate between various stations and experiences featuring hands-on activities that demonstrate different types of learning obstacles, including reading and writing challenges, speech deficits, and fine and gross motor challenges.

Several area schools are participating in sensitivity workshops this year, including Yeshiva Shaare Tzion in Piscataway on Jan. 16 and Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston on March 14 and 21. 

Members of Team Yachad, which organizes runners in support of inclusion, kicked off NAIM by running in the Miami ING Marathon and Half-Marathon on Jan. 27. The programs will culminate March 15-17 with a High School Leadership Shabbaton in Teaneck focusing on advocacy training, followed by a lobbying trip to Washington, DC.

When AABJ&D started using the Purim PowerPoint for the deaf and hard of hearing, it was one of five congregations testing it out. This year, the synagogue will offer it in its Ashkenazi minyan as well as its Sephardi minyan.

Among the other congregations using the PowerPoint this year are Shomrei Emunah in Montclair, Temple Hatikvah in Flanders, and White Meadow Temple in Rockaway.

 

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