A highlight of the year for the entire New England Yachad community is the Tu B’Shevat Seder with K’sharim and Shaarei Tefillah Synagogue, which was held recently in Newton, MA. The Tu B’Shevat Seder ceremony commemorates the new year for trees, which falls on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shevat. Individuals of all ages with disabilities, their families and the broader Jewish community participated. Congregation Shaarei Tefillah and its rabbi, Benjamin Samuels, have consistently shown eagerness to take initiatives to include people with disabilities into their community. Shaarei also co-sponsored the event and was recently recognized nationally by the Hineinu Initiative as one of the most “Inclusive synagogues in the country.”
Over 130 people attended the Tu B’shevat Seder. Over forty teen ‘peer participants’ also attended the Seder to enjoy the evening alongside their Yachad friends. At Yachad we don’t have “volunteers” because everything we do is inclusive – so our cadre or middle and high school students without disabilities, who attend activities alongside the individuals with disabilities, are called peer participants.
The Seder opened with two activities: working on a community mural with artist Tova Speter and completing a make-and-take arts and crafts project. The tables of the Shaarei Tefillah social hall were adorned with art supplies, make-your-own flower pots, stencils, and ceramic tiles waiting to be decorated. As the Seder participants began to create these bright, nature and/or tree-related projects, the atmosphere was one of friendship. Around the room, people helped each other out with their art, offering Tu B’Shevat inspired ideas for each other’s art projects and socializing. Eventually, the vast majority of people in the room had their own project to take home– either a decorative tile or a flower pot– and each was specific to each participant’s taste, yet united as part of one general theme of Tu B’Shevat and renewal.
Perhaps most impressively, the girls of The Binah School in Sharon, MA led an array of activities. First, these motivated students publicized their recent projects in school that were part of a Binah School unit that focused on inclusion. Then, the Binah School invited the seder participants, table by table, outside into the synagogue’s atrium to contribute to their mural. The mural created by the Binah school and Tova Speter is traveling in pieces to disabilities groups and programs from across Greater Boston in addition to Yachad and K’sharim and is set to be the first public mural on display in the town of Sharon. The mural represents values of community and sharing. Every participant who wished to contribute had an opportunity to draw his or her own design in an individual portion of the mural. This activity was a great builder of self-esteem for all, especially the artistically talented Seder participants. (Unfortunately, I do not fit into this category!)
The Tu B’Shevat Seder continued with eating fruits and nuts of all kinds- from papaya to mango, kiwi to apricots, carob to cashews. The goal was to commemorate the new year for the trees and celebrate what they bring forth.
This year’s Tu B’Shevat seder was fun, inspirational, and unifying for our communities. We hope we can reach even higher heights in Seders to come!
Daniel Schwartz is a senior at The Maimonides School in Brookline. Among his many other hobbies and interests, which include baseball, acting, and Jewish learning, he has been involved for the past three years in New England Yachad. Daniel writes, “Our local Yachad club began as a small group of Maimo students who would go together to events within the Jewish community with a handful of people with disabilities. It remained small for many years. After a few of us attended Yachad’s National Leadership Shabbaton 2 years ago, we became committed to helping transform our Yachad chapter. Our commitment to doing more programs with individuals with disabilities received a huge boost with the support of Liz Offen, an inclusion expert, hired as the Director of New England Yachad. In a short time, our chapter grew to more than 250 participants– students and adults, people with and without disabilities, within the broader Jewish community.” Contact New England Yachad at NewEnglandYachad@ou.org