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Interfaith leaders strive to include people of all abilities

Zoe Spiegel was joined by her parents at her bat mitzvah at Temple Beth Shalom. Jonathan Wiggs /Globe Staff

NEEDHAM — Zoe Spiegel stepped to the bimah. Ten of her teachers, standing beside her, sang a blessing, and in a voice soft as snowfall, the 13-year-old began to read her Torah portion in Hebrew. She paused, fidgeting slightly.

“Beautiful,” Rabbi Jay Perlman said.

Zoe has autism; she speaks mostly in single words. Her bat mitzvah at Temple Beth Shalom last weekend was not just a celebration of her transition into adulthood, or even of the extraordinary effort she and her family and teachers invested in her preparation.

It was also a vivid illustration of Temple Beth Shalom’s efforts to include people with disabilities in the life of the congregation, something a Jewish philanthropic organization is hoping to help spread throughout religious communities in Boston in the coming years.


Including those with disabilities is “not a project or an initiative, it’s a value,” said Shira Ruderman, director of the Ruderman Family Foundation, speaking to a group of 16 interfaith leaders at Northeastern University on Monday. “It’s a mind-set.”

The foundation has been working for about 15 years to help make the Jewish community in Boston more accessible for people with disabilities, which it sees as a matter of fairness, not charity. It convened Monday’s round table so that religious leaders could share stories and information about inclusion, with the goal of making all places of worship in Boston fully inclusive by 2020.

On one level, advocates say, true accessibility is complex: It is not just a matter of building ramps and adding elevators but also of considering food allergies when offering snacks after worship, tailoring religious education for kids with learning disabilities, and considering the needs of people with anxiety at social gatherings after worship.

On another level, though, inclusion is simple, said Jay Ruderman, a former prosecutor and the president of the Ruderman foundation — a matter, he said, of what Reform movement president Rabbi Rick Jacobs calls “audacious welcome.”


“It goes a long way for a religious leader to get up and say, ‘All people are welcome here,’” he said.

One of the suggestions discussed at yesterday’s round table, for example, was exchanging the directive “Please rise” during Jewish and Christian worship for “please rise as you are able.” Or, perhaps even better, so no one feels singled out: “Please rise in body and spirit.”

Money can be a limiting factor, as can architecture. The Rev. Jack Ahern, a veteran Catholic priest in Dorchester who attended the meeting, said old church buildings can present serious obstacles to full accessibility.

But Maryam Sharrieff, a Muslim chaplain at Brandeis University, said one of the aging mosques she frequents could consider creative alternatives to fund-raising for a handicap ramp for its forbidding front stoop — getting carpenters and other skilled tradespeople to donate services, for example.

“It’s about priority,” she said.

Synagogues in the area, especially those that have worked with the Ruderman foundation, are beginning to share strategies they’ve tried. One modern Orthodox congregation developed a rotation of congregants to push a member who uses a wheelchair to Shabbat services every week. A Reform congregation began a support group for parents of children with mental illness.

At Temple Beth Shalom, an inclusion task force led by Dr. Jerome Schultz, a pediatric neuropsychologist, has overseen a host of changes in recent years. They helped make sure that a major renovation of the building created a structure that is fully accessible to wheelchairs, with elevators, electronic front doors, and a coatroom with wheelchair storage.


They have overseen more subtle changes, too.

In the sanctuary, there are audio devices for those who are hard of hearing and large-print prayer books for people who have trouble seeing. The congregation will soon have mezuzot — an ornamental case containing a small piece of parchment that is affixed to doorways of Jewish homes and synagogues as a reminder of God’s presence and law — at both eye level and wheelchair level in every doorframe, allowing children and people in wheelchairs to touch it as a sign of reverence. A welcome desk is staffed by volunteers who are trained in accessibility and hospitality. And it added Sara Wittenberg, a special educator, to its religious education staff.

“We wanted everyone to feel the warmth of coming into our home,” said Perlman, the rabbi.

They are planning continued technological improvements — to the website, for example — with the help of the Synagogue Inclusion Project, a joint effort by the Ruderman foundation and Combined Jewish Philanthropies.

The goal, Schultz said, is that everyone has “access without asking.”

When Zoe Spiegel’s parents, Mira and Rob, joined Beth Shalom a few months before their daughter was born, they did not realize their daughter would have special needs. Mira Spiegel went into labor at 34 weeks, and was stunned to learn that her baby had an unusual illness and low odds of survival. They met Perlman in person for the first time when he came to visit them in the hospital.


Zoe lived, and thrived, but she was diagnosed with autism at age 2. Before kindergarten, she had already begun special religious school classes at Gateways, the central agency in Boston for Jewish special education — funded in part by both Combined Jewish Philanthropies and the Ruderman foundation — whose motto is “every Jewish child deserves a Jewish education.”

A few years ago, the Spiegels met with Perlman and Wittenberg.

“We said, ‘It would be nice to do something for Zoe around the time of her bat mitzvah,’” Mira Spiegel recalled. “And they said, ‘How about a bat mitzvah?’ ”

The Spiegels have always had high expectations of their daughter, who can read fairly well and eagerly participates in a variety of sports. So she began preparing for the coming-of-age ritual, ultimately spending twice as much time as a child typically would — about six hours a week for several years.

Her teachers at Gateways and Temple Beth Shalom taught her to read Hebrew word by word, using phonetic spellings in English to indicate the pronunciation of the Hebrew, paired with simple pictures to help her understand the meaning.

“It wasn’t a question of ‘if,’ ” said Wittenberg, speaking of the attitudes of everyone involved. “It was a question of ‘how.’ ”

And so Zoe Spiegel became a bat mitzvah on Saturday. In blessing their daughter, the Spiegels thanked the dozens of members of “Team Zoe.” And Mira Spiegel spoke of how much Zoe loved the song “Hero,” from the movie “Boyhood.”


Perhaps, Mira Spiegel mused, it had something to do with one of its lyrics: “Everyone deserves a chance to walk with everyone else.”

“We hope you always know how much we love you, and how proud we are of you,” she said. “And we hope you will always get that chance to walk with everyone else.”

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at