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Action: Welcoming People with Disabilities

Congregants at Temple Beth El in Hillsborough, New Jersey were amazed when Grace Amodeo expertly read Torah at last year’s Yom Kippur services. Many of them showered her with praise. Although pleased to receive the attention, the 16-year-old high school student, who has been blind since birth, didn’t quite understand what the big deal was.

“I thought to myself, ‘I guess I did something right. I hope they ask me to read again next year,’” she says.

The fact that, despite her disability, Amodeo can read Torah as well—or better—than her sighted peers is a testament to Temple Beth El’s longstanding policy of including people with disabilities.

Now, thanks to the Union’s partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation, many more URJ congregations will focus on ensuring participation of people with disabilities in synagogue life (see “Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Initiative,” below). Synagogues can also learn from congregational initiatives that have already made Jewish communities more inclusive.

Begin with Understanding

“Authentic inclusion begins when we realize that each of us is created B’tzelem Elohim [in the Divine image], and that we are more alike than different,” says URJ disabilities and inclusion faculty member Shelly Christensen, author of the Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities. She recommends that congregants without disabilities “take a moment to think about all the ways you’re involved in the Jewish community, and then imagine what it would be like to not have those things in your life. This is what it’s like for people with disabilities and their families, many of whom do not have access to Jewish communal life. People with and without disabilities have similar needs to be part of the Jewish community, and everyone needs to feel they belong.”

Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher, the URJ’s faculty member for Sacred Caring Community and coordinator of the Active Learning Network on disabilities inclusion, emphasizes that “congregations benefit when they consider not only how to serve members with disabilities, but also what those members can contribute to the congregation. Members with disabilities want to serve on committees, mentor others, participate in Torah and other worship services, teach classes, volunteer in classrooms, and share what they have learned on their own unique journeys.”

“The most important thing a congregation can do to make a congregant feel included is to show that the person matters,” explains Neil Jacobson, a member of Temple Sinai in Oakland, who has cerebral palsy. “My wife, son, and I were able to go with our congregation to Israel because our rabbi worked with the travel agent to find a tour bus with a lift and booked a wheelchair accessible room at each hotel. Strong fellow congregants helped a lot.”

Build a Foundation of Inclusion

Consider establishing an inclusion committee, where people with disabilities or parents of children with disabilities serve alongside those who do not have disabilities.

Also consider inviting individuals with disabilities to sit on the congregation’s board of trustees. Neil Jacobson, who is on Temple Sinai’s board by virtue of his chairmanship of the temple’s Access Committee, says, “many people with disabilities, including myself, have become creative problem-solvers who resolve challenges with unique, easy-to-implement solutions. The fundamental belief we tend to have—that there’s always a way to do what needs to be done—is helpful to any organization.”

Some congregations, such as Temple Beth Torah (TBT) in Upper Nyack, New York, have established multiple task forces to ensure that everyone feels welcome and has full access to congregational life. A TBT education task force brings religious school teachers together with congregational volunteers trained in learning disabilities. A technology task force, which oversaw the installation of the congregation’s hearing loop (an assistive listening system), is working on online access for members unable to come to services. A nefesh (soul) task force focuses on mental health issues, and a chesed (loving-kindness) committee reaches out to congregants who are homebound, ill, or have other needs.

Show You’re Welcoming

“You might think that if you are doing inclusion right, you don’t have to talk about it,” says Lisa Friedman, an educator at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey, who blogs regularly about inclusion in the temple’s religious school. “But many people out there won’t know how accommodating your congregation is unless you tell them.”

Shelly Christensen recommends publicly acknowledging that your organization accommodates people with disabilities by “stating on your website and on every application form, flyer, brochure, and invitation that you welcome and seek the involvement of people with disabilities.”

Rabbi Mencher notes that “implicit messages are just as important as explicit ones in demonstrating full acceptance and modeling inclusion. Consider, for example: Does your website include photos of people with visible disabilities participating in congregational activities? Does it mention including people whose disabilities may not be apparent such as those who are deaf or have a mental illness?”

At Congregation Shir Ha-Ma'alot in Irvine, California, the messaging of inclusion starts just inside the synagogue’s entrance, where on display is a 50-page resource guide listing local orthodontists, barbers, and other community professionals who specialize in working with people with disabilities.

Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland details its accommodations on its website. “Shabbat morning and evening services can be sign-interpreted upon request. Select High Holy Days services are interpreted. Members of Temple Beth Ami may request interpreters….Bar and bat mitzvah families may also request interpreting services….A ramp is available to the bimah in the sanctuary….The temple has wheelchairs and walkers available….If you have any other situations that require accommodations…we will make every effort to assist you.”

Take an Individualized Approach to Education

There is no one-size-fits-all model when it comes to educating children who are deaf or blind or have autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, cognitive processing disorders, or other disabilities. Each child should be educated Al Pi Darko, according to his or her unique learning needs.

The religious school staff at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia has created a JEAP, or Jewish Educational Action Plan, for approximately 15 students identified as requiring extensive accommodation, presenting an individualized educational vision, describing his/her strengths, and recommending learning strategies and accommodations that would facilitate learning.

Rabbi Mari Chernow at Temple Chai in Phoenix personalizes b’nai mitzvah ceremonies for students with disabilities. One child with autism drew pictures of the parasha that were displayed in the synagogue’s lobby. Another child with autism answered scripted questions about the parasha with one- or two-word responses.

Individualized learning is even more effective when educators view parents of children with disabilities as their partners and seek out their ideas, strategies, and resources. Grace Amodeo’s parents, for example, introduced her religious school teachers at Temple Beth El in Hillsborough, New Jersey to the Jewish Braille Institute’s Hebrew learning materials for the blind, which helped her learn Hebrew and become the fluent Torah reader she is at age 16.

Find the Right Inclusion Model for Services

Is it better to hold separate or integrated services for people with disabilities? URJ congregations have met with success in using both models.

A couple of years ago, a congregant told Rabbi Robert Levine of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City that she’d never felt comfortable taking her daughter, who was on the Autism spectrum, to the synagogue. She asked him what could be done.

“It was an ‘aha!’ moment,” Rabbi Levine reflects. “I became convinced there were many more ‘hidden Jews’ in the community. As soon as we could find a way to remove the ‘not wanted’ sign, I was sure they would start to show up.”

Working with the organization Music for Autism, temple leaders designed Shireinu (Our Songs) services. Held four times per year (on Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, Purim and Passover), the services are more free-spirited than the congregation’s usual services. Each service is also outlined in advance for the approximately 100 participants (so they know what to expect and are better able to follow along), different types of behavior are welcomed, and food is available at the back of the room (so worshipers can snack whenever they are hungry). Rodeph Sholom has created a video “how to” series to guide other congregations in creating these services..

Other congregations, such as Congregation Har HaShem in Boulder, Colorado, have held “No-Shush” services in the main sanctuary, thereby building communal acceptance for differences.

Address Invisible Disabilities

“A caring community brings meals to people when their family member is in the hospital,” says Rabbi Judy Shanks of Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, California. “But where’s the casserole when your daughter is in drug rehab or in the hospital after a suicide attempt?”

In 2009, the temple launched its P’tach Libeinu (Open Our Hearts) initiative, hosting a daylong conference on mental illness, inviting experts on mental health to speak to the congregation, and running ongoing support groups for people with mental illness as well as for caregivers/family members. As a result, Rabbi Shanks says, “Members are much more open about sharing experiences of mental illness.”

Rabbi Mencher agrees that “congregations can reduce the stigma attached to this invisible disability by openly discussing mental illness. Mention its frequent occurrence from the bimah; provide information about conditions, support resources, and treatment; make clear that the clergy are available to speak privately about mental health concerns; and help people to find strength, solace, and hope within the Jewish community as well as in prayers and texts.” She also recommends utilizing the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center’s mental health resources; the UJA Federation of New York’s “Shabbat of Wholeness” congregational toolkit; and the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ guide, "Creating Caring Congregations: An Interactive Forum for Ministers and Health Ministry Leaders".

Be Proactive

While some congregations wait for congregants to request accommodations before instituting change, those which have taken action out of an unprompted “if you build it, they will come” attitude have found the accommodation meets more needs than they’d realized.

“Before we put in our telecoil hearing loop, which enables hearing aids to access microphones directly without interference, no one was complaining,” recalls Rabbi Brian Beal of Temple Beth Torah. “But as soon as the loop went in, many congregants admitted that they had hearing problems and thanked us for helping them. The change in culture also helped a congregant with a physical disability feel comfortable asking me to make our sukkah more accessible, which we are addressing.”

Architecture & Beyond

To make synagogues more accessible to people with disabilities, a number of congregations have added an elevator, ramps, or lifts to the front door and up to the bimah. A natural time to do this alteration work is during a building renovation following a major capital campaign.

Some congregations are making structural changes that affect all worshipers, not only those with disabilities. For example, in Bet Shalom Congregation's building in Minnetonka, Minnesota, a subtle incline begins in the middle of the sanctuary leading up to the bimah. Rabbi David Locketz notes: “Everyone goes up to the bimah the same way.”

In addition, to enable congregants who use wheelchairs to access its mezuzot, Bet Shalom repositioned them to hang near the top of the middle third of each doorpost, even though halachah prescribes that a mezuzah has to be positioned on the upper third of the door. “Sometimes standard Jewish tradition doesn’t reach everyone,” Rabbi Locketz says.

"One accommodation I’ve seen in no other synagogue is the mechanically accessible speaker’s podium on the bimah of Temple Micah in Washington, DC," says Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, senior disabilities advisor to the RAC and co-founder of Hineinu (a collaboration of disability professionals from every Jewish denomination to increase disability inclusion in all synagogues). “At the push of a button, the podium sinks into the bimah to accommodate a person who uses a wheelchair or a ‘little person,’ all the while maintaining the simple beauty of the bimah.”

At Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo, California, the armless chairs in the reception area have been replaced with ones that do have arms. “Many people need chair arms in order to push themselves up in to a standing position,” Rabbi Dennis Eisner explains.

Find Funds

How can congregations struggling to balance their budget find funds for inclusion?

Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland has received a grant for technology “to better reach students with diverse needs,” says Kim Roberts, director of Education. “Moreover, we provide extra services for children with disabilities free of charge by prioritizing the resources in our budget. Meeting the needs of all our families is a budgetary challenge, but we consider it both a privilege and a necessity to ensure that every student has a Jewish education, identity, and home within our congregation and the Jewish community.”

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbilityUSA, advises congregations not to focus too much on seeking funding from foundations that support disabilities inclusion.

“You will raise more money through membership fees and donations,” she says, “if you become more inclusive and use that as a selling point. If people with disabilities and their families hear that your congregation is welcoming of people with disabilities, they will join and your financial base will grow.” Mizrahi notes that while parents of children with disabilities may have fewer financial resources to spare, grandparents may donate in gratitude to a welcoming congregation.

She also emphasizes that “inclusion is actually a lot less expensive than people think,” pointing out that some local Jewish federations offer inclusion training for religious school educators. To learn more, check with your local federation.

Don’t Go It Alone

“You can’t always do disabilities inclusion programs on your own,” says Rabbi Dennis Eisner of Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo, California. “It can be too overwhelming.”

Temple Beth El participates in a joint inclusion initiative in which synagogues, Jewish day schools, JCCs, a central agency for Jewish education, and other communal organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area’s North Peninsula region share resources, knowledge, passion, skills, and facilities. Each synagogue hosts a different holiday event, which keeps a variety of programs ongoing, raises awareness about disabilities inclusion among members of all the congregations, and broadens everyone’s experience of Jewish community.

The URJ Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Initiative will guide congregations in effective inclusion work. Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher, coordinator of the URJ’s Active Learning Network on disabilities inclusion, is available for consultation at emencher@urj.org. The Religious Action Center (RAC) is facilitating activism on disability rights through direct advocacy; a website promoting citizen involvement with discussion of disability rights and Jewish values; and its annual Jewish Disability Advocacy Day programming in Washington, DC, during which Jewish leaders across the continent learn about public policy issues impacting the disability community and then meet with their legislators to advocate on the issues. The URJ and the RAC are also part of the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements’ collaborative initiative, Hineinu: Here We Are—Building Jewish Communities for People of All Abilities, sharing expertise, programs, activities, Jewish texts, and guidelines to help build inclusive Jewish communities for people of all abilities.

With nearly 20 percent of people having a visible or invisible disability (U.S. census), Ruderman Family Foundation President Jay Ruderman views inclusion as a strategic imperative for the Jewish community: “Disabilities don’t just affect the person with a disability but also his/her families and friends as well,” he says. “Leaving many members of our community on the outside, looking in, is not an option. The full inclusion of people with disabilities ensures the continuity and future of Jewish communal life.”  

Renee Ghert-Zand is a journalist covering the Jewish world.