Congregation Adath Israel went for the gold — and got it.
The Lawrenceville synagogue has won three top awards from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in recognition of its inclusiveness to those with special needs and for its Torah dedication project.
The synagogue received the Solomon Schechter Awards for Synagogue Excellence for 2009 at the USCJ’s biennial conference in December.
Adath Israel — the only congregation in the Princeton Mercer Bucks area to win three gold awards — won the honors in the categories of Inclusion of Individuals with Disabilities, Publications, and Celebrations and Dedications.
The congregation’s commitment to individuals with special needs is “so much a part of the identity of the synagogue,” said Adath Israel’s Rabbi Daniel Grossman, who has led the congregation for over 22 years. “Here it’s integral to what everybody does.”
The inclusion category award recognized the congregation’s Kesher L’Gesher and Gesher B’nai Mitzvah programs. They use progressive instruction for students with a wide range of disabilities — including autism, ADD/ADHD, Tourette’s Syndrome, Fragile X, and Familial Dysautonomia — and for students with emotional and behavioral deficits. The training, conducted through the synagogue’s Resource Center, incorporates the use of specialized computer programs with the help of an aide as well as a loose-leaf siddur with individualized prayer materials. Gesher B’nai Mitzvah graduates also have the opportunity to return to the center as madrihim (guides) for the next group of b’nei mitzva students.
The resource center is open to the community for religious instruction, said Grossman, who himself is hearing impaired. Additionally, the entire synagogue is on one level with double-wide doors to accommodate wheelchair-bound individuals. “The whole place basically functions on the notion if you make it accessible and you make it available,” then there are no barriers to inclusion.
The publications award reflects the synagogue’s commitment to Jewish education for all. In cooperation with the Principals’ Council of Princeton Mercer Bucks, Adath Israel created “BINA — An E.Letter on the Best practices, Information, News, and Awareness on Special Needs Jewish education” to help share educational information throughout the community. (“Bina” means wisdom in Hebrew.) The electronic newsletter’s coordinator, occupational therapist Sharon Frant Brooks, is “constantly creating different possibilities” in special needs education, Grossman said.
The congregation’s award-winning Torah dedication project began in March 2007 with the discovery that a word was missing from its Torah scroll. A series of programs and events led to the commissioning and dedication of a new sefer Torah along with new scroll covers and accessories. Educational programs included “walking tours” of well-known Torah passages, the dedication of a geniza for damaged ritual items, and letter-writing opportunities. “It was a very emotional experience,” Grossman said.
The Jewish Center in Princeton also received a gold award for membership retention, a silver award for special programming in honor of Israel’s 60th anniversary, and an honorable mention in elementary education.