Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel

85 Harrison Street, New Haven, CT 06515-1724 | P: 203.389.2108 |

Our banner is based on BEKI’s stained glass, designed in 2008 by Cynthia Beth Rubin. For information on this and other of Cynthia’s work, go to: <a href="" target="_blank"></a>. Artisan Fabrication by JC Glass of Branford, CT

Special Needs Adults

Kulanu Ke’Ehad Havura: The All as One Study & Friendship Circle for Adults with Special Needs at Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel

Kulanu Ke’Ehad Havura is a project begun in the summer of 1997 to enable adults with developmental disabilities to live richer lives as Jews in their own homes and to participate more fully in the synagogue community.


Barkhenu avinu kulanu ke’ehad be’or panekha – Bless us our Father, all as one, in the light of your countenance.” With this passage from the traditional prayerbook we express our desire for God’s blessing on each and every member of the community, in the realization that no individual can be fully blessed unless all are blessed. With that prayer in mind, Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel has initiated an innovative program to help members of the Congregation learn to understand and welcome those with developmental disabilities and related special needs, and to offer the latter new openings and opportunities for spiritual growth and fulfillment as part of the community and in their own homes.

Kulanu offers activities for adults with special needs. Participants are also involved in the Congregation by personal invitation to events and programs designed for the general membership and community, and through congregants’ hosting of participants for home rituals. Kulanu enhances the inclusiveness of the congregational community, helping to realize the vision of a united people, kulanu ke’ehad, all as one. The development of Kulanu is being documented so that the materials and program model can be disseminated.

BEKI has taken a lead regionally in programs for adults and children with special needs. The BEKI Sisterhood has offered an annual Special Needs Seder for Adults in cooperation with the Jewish Family Service and Abel Caterers since 1983. BEKI is uniquely situated to serve this segment of our community as residents and clients of Chapel Haven, an assisted living program, have been involved with the congregation to varying degrees for some time, in part because Chapel Haven is located only a block from BEKI. In addition, residents of the Parents Foundation for Transitional Living in New Haven are involved in the synagogue. Thanks to its central urban location, the Congregation is most accessible to adults with special needs. In 1994 the Congregation became the first in our region to offer a Special Education Hebrew School, the Talmud Torah Meyuhad, which it founded as part of its religious schoolTalmud Torah Meyuhad is supported by the Department of Jewish Education of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven. Additional support forTalmud Torah Meyuhad at BEKI is provided by the The Borick Family Endownment for Special Education for Youth at Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel.

These limited programs led the Congregation to observe that simply welcoming adults with special needs is not enough. For them to be actively involved in congregational life in an adult capacity, with all the honors open to such, they need specialized programs, sensitive to their particular learning challenges and respectful of their place in our community. Only recently has Jewish education become flexible enough to accommodate children with special learning needs; thus many special needs adults were bypassed as children and did not acquire the basic ritual skills of the Jewish home or synagogue. Kulanu therefore incorporates a component to explore how participants can make Jewish observance more a part of their home lives, just as they may learn in their residential and guided-living programs how to live independently.

Congregational Involvement

Congregational involvement with the program is significant. The Kadima and USY Youth Groups participate in activities, with the Program Director-Instructor providing both an introduction to the program, training, and follow-up designed to place the experience in a larger context of both social action and the unity of the Jewish People. Families are recruited as hosts for Festivals and Shabbat, with orientation provided by the staff. An ongoing effort to raise the congregation’s awareness and understanding of adults with special needs is being undertaken by the staff, including orientation of Board and congregational committee members, ushers and gabbaim, and parent participants in children’s programs.


Jewish Educator Anne Johnston conceived of and developed the program along with Rabbi Tilsen. Dr. Lauren Kempton directed Kulanu from August 2001 through June 2010.  Ina Silverman has worked with Rabbi Tilsen on this project since 2010.


Major funding for 1997-1999 was provided by the The Jewish Foundation of Greater New Haven, a community agency which manages institutional and private endowment funds.

Major funding is also provided by Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel. If you would like to contribute toward the costs of the current program or its continuation in the future, please call Rabbi Tilsen at 203.389.2108 ext. 10 or Correspondence regarding funding may be sent to “Rabbi Tilsen, Kulanu at BEKI, 85 Harrison Street, New Haven CT 06515-1724.” Contributions are tax-deductible to the full extent allowed by law.

Beginning in 1999, Kulanu has received annual support from The David & Lillian Levine Endowment for People with Special Needs at Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel.

Vision for the Future

Kulanu will build on the initiatives of both the Talmud Torah Meyuhad Special Needs Hebrew School, the Jewish Family Service’s Shalom Group and the BEKI Sisterhood‘s Special Needs Seder in raising community awareness of Jews with special needs and in providing services to special needs adults. The program will substantially expand the number of special needs adults served and initiate a new approach of using educational programs to integrate participants into the community. It will provide a congregation-based model of service provision, encouraging other congregations to identify and reach out to underserved populations. A volunteer component will develop strategies to enable participants to contribute volunteer labor to other Jewish communal agencies.

A parallel but distinct Saul’s Circle program for adults with chronic mental illness was developed as a separate program with its own identity and participants beginning in July 1999. In Kulanu’s first two years, services were also provided to this group.

Kulanu Ke’Ehad Havura reaches out to our neighbors who have already started to reach out to our community, to actively work to make them a part of the community, and to make the congregation a place where they can feel comfortable, safe, and competent. In so doing, Kulanu deepens participants’ sense of Jewish identity and strengthen their affiliation with the larger Jewish community, a connection the program actively nurtures through appropriate referrals and networking. This program furthers BEKI‘s mission of spiritual renewal for individuals and the community as a whole. In empowering our neighbors to enter the community as active adult Jews, we expand our sense of who and what community means, and we enhance our awareness of the many ways in which the people of Israel can reach out to each other and to God.

See the Connecticut Jewish Ledger story on Kulanu, “‘All as One’: BEKI program reaches out to adults with special needs” in the 13 March 1998 issue.

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