Our Shuls: A Call for Access

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01 Feb 2019

Stairs. A simple, structurally unextraordinary albeit useful form of craftsmanship. They’re not really given much thought: If the choice exists between a walk-up and an elevator, the latter’s winning every time. And if not, perhaps a quiet, frustrated, It’s-really-about-time-I-start-dieting sigh accompanies the undesired yet quickly disregarded ascension.

But for millions of people, stairs are quite literally everything. How many are there? Are they steep? Are they narrow? Are they maneuverable? The wrong answer to any one of these questions invariably decides whether an individual with a mobility impairment can participate in a social event, arrive on time—if at all—to a job interview, or suffer the potentially demoralizing experience of requiring a stranger’s physical assistance.

The disparity in the way that people with and without physical handicaps perceive the staircase makes it difficult for the unimpaired to fully sympathize with her affected peers. I’m most reminded of this reality on my yearly returns from Yad B’ Yad, Yachad’s inclusive Israel summer program for teens with and without disabilities. The nature of our trip necessarily demands that stairs are always the deciding factor in every situation. Your hotel doesn’t have an elevator? Sorry, we’ll have to take our business elsewhere. There’s no ramp in the park? We’ll find another activity. The can’t-miss Western Wall Tunnel Tours will require four staff members to help carry a person’s wheelchair? Fine but would you please make sure the electric ramp works for next year? While my return to JFK formally ends this mode of thought, September and October are consistently marked by an astute, innate awareness of each step and stair and the challenges it would pose to individuals like those on my trip. Unfortunately, as the months progress and I naturally drift away from this mentality, I too find myself more oblivious of staircases, hardly acknowledging their existence let alone the difficulties they present to certain populations.

Whether or not they’re noticed, staircases—or more importantly, the inexistence of accessible alternatives—produces a very negative, very off-putting image. By sheer definition, they determine who may and may not participate in programming, creating a hierarchy in which only specific types of people belong. Perhaps more frighteningly, the lack of any suitable entrance could suggest to an individual with a physical handicap that he is unwelcome—or at least less-than fully appreciated—within the excluding institution.

It’s therefore disheartening to visit shuls and notice just how many do not provide suitable access for their congregants who use wheelchairs. How will a young child ever feel included if Shabbat groups are always on the building’s second floor, preventing her from participating in such a central part of communal bonding? What message does it send if a boy with Cerebral Palsy cannot even receive an aliyah on his bar mitzvah because the bimah’s steps create an insurmountable barrier to the Torah? What thoughts enter the Zaidy’s mind as he counts the stairs leading up to the aron, ultimately realizing that he will never again have the opportunity of opening it?

In most cases, shuls don’t even realize a staircase’s effects until they become unavoidably apparent. In one community on the east coast, a well-known speaker who uses a wheelchair was invited to deliver a talk on disability inclusion. After the crowd was assembled in the sanctuary, it kindly welcomed their guest who made her way up to the front of the room to deliver the night’s address. Unfortunately, in its admirable eagerness to allow as many people as possible to see and hear the speaker, the shul naturally decided to place the microphone next to its pulpit—atop a significant flight of stairs. The shul members were then forced to watch the speaker wait for the podium to be reconfigured on level ground, obstructed from view of many listeners and away from the very place in which every other person delivers an address.

While the realities facing our shul members with mobility impairments are troubling, they don’t G-d forbid, somehow reflect a communal disregard for those with disabilities. Over the last few decades, mainstream Jewish summer camps have opened their doors to people with disabilities, believing that an inclusive atmosphere lays a more fertile ground for genuine friendships and stronger education. Shuls too host over 100 Yachad Shabbatonim each year, allowing their congregants to interact with and learn from a diverse group of unique individuals.

It’s true that many of today’s Jewish communities are financially limited and that there are numerous worthy causes that deserve attention. Constructing a fully accessible shul poses a significant financial burden on a young community and even redesigning an old entranceway is often prohibitively expensive. For these reasons, a shul’s inability to make inclusive accommodations is understandable.

Ultimately though, it’s more likely that the underlying factor is not monetary but rather one of understanding. If we, as able-bodied individuals, only knew what it meant to feel completely reliant on another person for so many of life’s daily activities, surely we would create religious environments that maximize independence. If we were aware of every forgone playdate, every friendship that wasn’t, every missed experience owing to the simple, inconsequential fact of a person’s physical limitations, there’s no doubt that every kiddush would be accessible to all of a shul’s congregants. If we truly appreciated just how much more authentic the sound of our communal tefillah would be if it offered the voices of both the standing and sitting alike, no sanctuary would fail to offer an accessible entrance.

Time and again, I’m reminded that if provided with an accommodating setting, relationships between those with and without disabilities will inevitably flourish. I watch in awe as high school students on our Yachad programs find ways of seamlessly including a young adult and his wheelchair into a dancing circle or together stay up late planning ways to prank their counselors. I become ever more optimistic of our communal future as I scroll through pictures in December—many months after the end of their summer—of teenagers both physically abled and limited at pizza shops, movies, and each other’s homes for Shabbat.

“Ma tovu ohalekha Ya’akov, mishk’notekha Yisrael” “How great are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” — is a daily prayer from Sefer Bamidbar expressing the beauty of the Jewish community’s synagogues. While in many ways they truly live up to this image, there is still a way to go in making our buildings home to all of our congregants. Until every shul provides a way for its members to reach the bimah, it simply isn’t possible for a person with a physical handicap to feel as if he’s fully welcomed. Unless each community ensures that all of its social events, learning programs, and youth activities are completely accessible, we will both fail to provide our children with an authentic portrait of our Jewish community as well as limit their range of life experiences and opportunities for personal development.

Humbly, I challenge all of our shuls to dedicate their next fundraisers to the installment of an elevator, the addition of more railings and ramps, or the creation of a ground-level activity room. In doing so, we’ll together create spaces in which everyone belongs.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.