A highlight of the year for the entire New England Yachad community is the Tu B’Shevat Seder with K’sharim and Congregation Shaarei Tefillah,held this year on January 19th in Newton. Individuals of all ages with disabilities, their families and the broader Jewish community participated in the Seder. The event is part of New England Yachad’s commitment to including Individuals with disabilities in community-based Jewish holiday celebrations. 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.”
New England Yachad recently received a grant from the Ruderman Family Foundation to extend its services to MetroWest, the North Shore and areas South of Boston. The grant and greater visibility of Yachad in these communities helped make this the largest Tu B’shevat Seder which experienced a big jump in numbers from last year. Over 130 people attended the Tu B’shevat Seder. The grant also has helped Yachad launch school-based clubs at Gann Academy and the Binah School, in addition to its longstanding club at the Maimonides School. Over forty teen peer participants also attended the Seder to enjoy the evening alongside their Yachad friends.
Although the event was coined “Tu B’Shevat Seder,” it really included much more. Members of the Shaarei community and greater Boston Jewish and special-needs communities arrived at Shaarei at 5:30 P.M. Yachad’s coordinator extraordinaire, Liz Offen, quickly took the mic and welcomed one and all to the event. The first activity, Liz explained, was a two-fold: 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 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, with nifty paint markers, 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!)
Next in the line of events of the evening was the Seder Tu B’Shevat. This ritual is centered around the idea that, at least in Israel, the new cycle of tree growth starts on the fifteenth of the month of Shevat, or Tu B’Shevat. As the Mishna notes in Tractate Rosh HaShana, this date, which usually falls out in mid-to-late January, is an official Jewish new year. Just as the Rosh HaShana many of us celebrate in the fall is the new year is our new year, so too this mid-winter date is the trees’ new year. Therefore, the Tu B’Shvat seder has much to do with vegetation and nature. The concept, beautifully explained by Rabbi Samuels, is one of elevating vegetation– what we eat, what grows and happens on this earth– to the divine. It includes four types of fruit, each of which represents humans’ role in the world and connection to God. We said a blessing on each of the types of fruits– every table was adorned with a diverse and colorful platter of more than fifteen kinds of fruit and nuts from papaya to mango, kiwi to apricots, carob to cashews. There was something for everyone to enjoy. Tu B’Shevat Seder Haggadot, or service booklets, were handed out and provided further inspiration about the three-way relationship between God, humans, and the earth, and helpful environmentally friendly tips.
Finally, after some words of inspiration and Torah from Rabbi David Saltzman, principal of Maimonides elementary school, everyone partook in a scrumptious dinner, catered by Andrew. The activity drew to a close around 7:45 P.M., and by that time, everyone was full and satisfied, in more ways than one. 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!
Yachad also will be hosting a Purim celebration and Megillah reading with Temple Reyim of Newton on March 15th, starting at 8pm. Yachad has many other inclusive social and recreational programs monthly for individuals with and without disabilities. For more information about New England Yachad contact Liz Offen, NewEnglandYachad@ou.org 646-628-7003.
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