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Reprinted by permission from the Connecticut Jewish Ledger
13 March 1998, p. 3
By Dorine Leogrande
One Shabbat morning, Anne Johnston noticed a few newcomers at her synagogue — adults with special needs — who were struggling to understand the all-Hebrew service.
These visitors to Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel (BEKI) in New Haven came from Chapel Haven, an agency down the street where adults with developmental disabilities participate in an assisted learning apartment program.
At Chapel Haven, adults learn how to do everyday chores — how to cook, clean, and balance a check book. But the Jewish residents also wanted to learn about synagogue life and their Jewish heritage.
As a special educator, Johnston wanted to integrate these adult into BEKI’s services with “dignity and respect.” She wanted them to feel that BEKI was their “spiritual and social home.”
She and BEKI spiritual leader Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen procured an $18,000 grant from the Jewish Foundation of Greater New Haven to start up a two-year program, which will offer Jewish education for adults with developmental disabilities and for adults with chronic mental illness in the greater New Haven area.
The program started last fall. Called “Kulanu Ke’Ehad Havura” (a phrase Tilsen picked from [traditional liturgy]), it means, “all as one.”
“This program,” Tilsen explained, “addresses a need unmet by the Jewish community of Greater New Haven. It 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 programs how to live independently.”
Johnston added, “The idea is there’s lots of JCC’s and synagogues around the country doing nice little segregated programs. Let’s give these people their own group and space and we’ll teach them. Kulanu is a bridge to open up the synagogue to help our congregants be more welcoming and informed, and to help our synagogue be a less threatening place to walk into if you’re not used to it.”
Kulanu is … run by Johnston, a 35-year-old from out west. Years ago, Johnston converted to Judaism. She then taught Jewish education in synagogues in Iowa, Oregon and Nebraska.
Aside from being education coordinator at Congregation Or Shalom in Orange, and teaching courses at MAKOM Hebrew High School in New Haven, she teaches Kulanu classes at BEKI, the Keefe Community Center in Hamden, and the Learning Barn at Fellowship House in New Haven. Her Kulanu students range in age from 18-50.
A few weeks ago, Johnston held a belated Tu B’Shevat seder for her students — they ate Israeli food, talked about the current situation in Israel, and planted parsley seeds so they’ll have parsley at their Passover seder. “This way, they’ll see the passage of Jewish time,” she explained.
For Purim, several volunteers with special needs (from the Learning Barn), will help run a children’s program at BEKI. Johnston and her Kulanu students will “brainstorm” about Purim costumes, learn about “cool” shiny face make-up and hair mascara, and make “shelach manot” with leftover Valentine’s Day candy.
Soon, Kulanu will start a class in intensive Jewish learning (study of Hebrew and liturgy) to help “diminish the distance between the ‘bima’ and the ‘pews,'” said Johnston.
By request, a Hebrew-siddur class will be held at the Learning Barn. She hopes BEKI congregants will volunteer and teach Kulanu students Hebrew one-on-one.
Johnston will also ask BEKI members to provide home hospitality–inviting participants over for Shabbat lunch or for the High Holiday meals. (BEKI provides clients with free tickets for High Holiday services.)
In the summertime, Kulanu participants may have a joint program with one of BEKI’s social action committees—they will clean up Beaver Pond Park in southern Connecticut, where congregants have held Tashlich services during Rosh Hashana.
Kulanu also plans to provide a job training sight at BEKI for adults with developmental disabilities who have the capacity to move into simple jobs at businesses like Kinko’s.
Finding clients to attend the Kulanu classes seems to be Johnston’s biggest challenge. She admitted, “Part of the challenge is to locate people who are interested. Agencies just want me to drop off fliers—but that’s not bringing in enough participants.”
Tilsen noted that Kulanu is being thoroughly documented so the materials and program model can be disseminated.
“Our goal,” said Johnston, “is to reach out to these people to help them feel at home. If every other congregation in the Greater New Haven area wanted to do this, we’d be thrilled to pieces. For, after all, that’s what ‘k’lal Yisrael’ is all about.”
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