Temple sinks money into restrooms — to aid disabled

So, you're on the board of a synagogue that painstakingly raised thousands of dollars for capital improvements. What'll you do first? Hire a full-time rabbi? Beautify the sanctuary? Put up a neon sign? Get dancing girls?

Well, at Temple Beth Hillel, the money is going into the toilet. Literally.

The Richmond synagogue is about to remodel its two public restrooms to make them accessible to people with physical disabilities. For the small, 107-family Reform congregation, this is actually a very big deal.

"The stalls will be made wheelchair accessible," says temple President Janet Taksa. "We'll be widening the doors, installing new surfaces and finishes."

Of course, the question remains: Why would a small synagogue in a working-class neighborhood, for which discretionary funds can be hard to come by, choose to spend its resources that way?

For an answer, one must turn to the example of Don Mason, a Richmond native and lifelong congregant who died last June.

Mason was a shoe salesman. He was neither rich nor flashy. He was just one of those guys who came into this life, raised a family, stayed married for more than half a century, connected with his community and tried to make the world a better place.

In the year or two before his death, Mason launched the temple's Mitzvah Access Fund (later renamed the Don Mason Mitzvah Access Fund). His vision was not to glitz up the temple, but rather to make it a more welcoming place for Jews, including Jews with disabilities. Beyond that, he figured, as congregants age, they too will need more accommodating facilities.

"Don made the initial appeal two years ago at High Holy Days," says Taksa. "He'd been ill for a long time, but the energy and effort he put into the synagogue, despite his illness, was a testament to the love that he had. He was preparing his appeal for the next year when he died."

In fact, at last year's High Holy Day appeal, temple Vice President Doug Freifeld urged congregants to make one last effort to raise the remaining funds needed for the restroom remodel.

"The first time I heard Don stand up here and say, 'I want you to dig into your pockets, and dig until it hurts,' I was a little shocked," Freifeld told the congregation from the bimah. "But then I came to realize that Don made that statement because of his love for our place and his real need to make it more precious for all of us."

Thanks to that fund drive, plus a pair of substantial bequests, Temple Beth Hillel finally amassed the funds to do the renovation. Now, all the ducks are in a row: The contractor is ready to go and groundbreaking is set for late spring, with a completion date expected around mid-summer. Just in time for a string of b'nai mitzvah ceremonies.

There was some droll talk of naming the facilities "Don's Johns," but cooler heads prevailed. However, some sort of permanent commemoration of the temple's "Mitzvah Access" campaign — and Mason's contributions — will be installed for all to see and kvell over.

Taksa concedes that having a ribbon-cutting ceremony for remodeled restrooms isn't quite in the same league as opening a Las Vegas casino, but she, Beth Hillel Rabbi Margie Jacobs, Cantor Howard Cohen and the entire congregation are ready to celebrate nonetheless.

"We're not a flashy kind of place," she says. "We always tried to be clear about what we value: We value being open to anyone who comes in the door. That's not something you do with a fancy building, but it is with restrooms anyone can use. I'm proud of us for being that kind of place."

Once they complete this job, temple leaders hope to start over again, this time with the aim of providing ramps for the bimah.

It's just another way of keeping alive Don Mason's vision of inclusion.

"He was just a shoe salesman," says Taksa of her dearly departed friend. "But he was also a wonderful man, devoted to family and community. And now look: It's gonna happen."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.