Thinking Beyond a Ramp: No-to-Low Cost Ideas to be Inclusive as a Synagogue

November 21, 2013

By Batya Rosner

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Is your synagogue sensitive to persons with disabilities? If someone with a physical, communication, hearing, vision, behavioral, or developmental disability moves into your community and is looking to belong to a shul, how would they perceive your synagogue? As welcoming, or as another closed door?
The most common obstacle for persons with disabilities to feel included are attitudinal issues within the shul, according to Deborah Berman, LCSW, director of social work for Yachad.

“The number one barrier to persons with disabilities and their families participating in synagogue life is that they feel unwelcome and no one from the synagogue has actively reached out to them,” she explained. “Synagogues don’t deliberately exclude individuals with disabilities or special needs, unwittingly pushing these individuals and families out of their rightful place in the Jewish world—they just don’t think about it; it’s not on the synagogue leadership’s radar. Or, if a synagogue has done amazing disability inclusion work within the synagogue, has enough community outreach been done to let everyone know about it to attract and invite persons with disabilities?”

Yachad/the National Jewish Council for Disabilities is the Orthodox Union’s flagship agency for disability services to the wider Jewish community, pursuing the goal of bringing full disability inclusion in Jewish life. Yachad’s newest initiative is Hineinu: Jewish Community for People of All Abilities, the first-ever formal combination of human rights and disability professionals from the Orthodox community and the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements, in order to increase disability inclusion in all synagogues for people of all abilities.

In conjunction with Hineinu, Yachad created a 20-page “Disability Inclusion Resource Guide for Rabbis.”

“It is only when attitudinal barriers are directly addressed and acknowledged by rabbis and other synagogue leadership that the synagogue community truly begins to move towards Inclusion,” said Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman, international director of Yachad. “As the community follows the rabbi’s example of active welcoming persons and families impacted by disabilities, many Jews with diverse abilities and challenges will at last find warmth, welcome, and a sense of belonging to their Jewish community.”

Creating an environment of inclusion doesn’t have to cost thousands of dollars. “It’s not the wealth of the synagogue or the number of people on a shul’s Inclusion Committee that matters—but rather, keeping it simple and focusing on making steady, small, and obtainable changes to synagogue life,” Berman noted. Inclusion as a synagogue goes far beyond a wheelchair-accessible ramp, although that certainly is a helpful addition to any synagogue’s physical layout.

The Disability Inclusion Resource Guide for Rabbis shares best practices on forming synagogue-based Inclusion committees or advisory boards; ideas for no-cost/low-cost physical changes; questions to pose for outreach to synagogue community; ritual accessibility; and Jewish quotes and texts pertaining to
Inclusion.

Small, measurable and easy-to-implement ideas for inclusion within a shul include:

1. Write a statement of welcome and disability inclusion to become part of all congregational membership materials such as the synagogue website, mailings, calendar, etc.

Wherever you would place your synagogue’s mission statement, this should also be found. It can be as simple as one line, “Congregation ___ welcomes all Jews of varying abilities.”

2. Discuss the presence of attitudinal barriers in your congregation. Explore why those attitudes exist and seek ways to address and eliminate them from your congregational family.

Create an Inclusion Committee and let your congregation know that it exists. Be proactive about involving people with disabilities and their families. Extend a welcoming hand. Ask for feedback on improvements. Involve them in prayer services utilizing their strengths and comforts regarding an aliyah to the Torah, hagba (lifting the Torah), gelila (tying the Torah), or peticha (opening the Ark).

3. Post appropriate signage indicating the location of your wheelchair accessible entrance, and disability-friendly restrooms (if there are any).

Are there signs at other doors indicating that a wheelchair-friendly entrance or bathroom exists and where it’s located? Don’t assume people will automatically know.

4. Lower your box of kippot and tallitot so that everyone, including people in wheelchairs, can reach them.

While they shouldn’t be on the top shelf (obviously, they shouldn’t be on the floor), place them somewhere everyone can reach, such as a tabletop.

5. Place cups at a wheelchair accessible height near the water fountain to make drinking water available for all.

This is pretty self-explanatory.

The full “Disability Inclusion Resource Guide for Rabbis” can be read and downloaded at www.yachad.org/resourceguide.

To learn more about the Resource Guide or to have a consultation on ways to make your synagogue more disability Inclusive, contact Deborah Berman at {encode=”bermand@ou.org” title=”bermand@ou.org”} or
(212) 613-8172.

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