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10 Ways To Make Your Synagogue More Accessible To People With Disabilities

Over the last decade, more and more Jewish institutions and organizations have become conscious of the importance of the inclusion of people with disabilities and their families—and have taken action steps to make their communities more inclusive both in terms of creating welcoming culture and also in terms of making physical changes needed for accessibility.

“Disability” itself is an umbrella term that may refer to individuals with cognitive, learning, developmental, mental illness and/or multiple disabilities. The Center for Disease Control cites that 22% of adults in the United States lone have some kind of disability —and that number may be even larger in the Jewish community due to genetic diseases.

“When a Jewish institute is inclusive of the 1-in-5 people who have a disability, they include not only that person but also their whole family. Moreover, we are our best when we are welcoming and respectful of all people,” says Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility, who is dyslexic and knows what it means to raise a child with multiple disabilities.

As your synagogue/temple/community center addresses its accessibility for all people, these ten steps can help you to become truly inclusive:

  1. Come together as a professional staff: Too often, our synagogue professionals work in their own department and may not be aware of the actions taken around inclusion through the institution. Last winter, in advance of Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion month, Cantor Amy Levy of Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park wanted to compile an article for congregants about the different ways that KI had formally and informally supported people with disabilities and their families over the years. She sat down with her colleagues in senior leadership and together they listed the steps that the preschool and religious school have taken as well as other ways that the congregation has opened its doors, including hosting a regular meeting for a local chapter of Adults With Developmental Disabilities. Reviewing what they had done already helped them set goals for what to work on next.
  2. Survey your community: It’s challenging to set goals for your community if you aren’t sure of what the needs of the community are. Remember that many disabilities are invisible. There are likely congregants or members of your organization who have never had an opportunity to share about their needs for accommodations. Create a survey that invites people to share about their experiences and needs for support.
  3. Form a committee/working group around accessibility: An inclusion committee can be comprised of professional staff and community members who are passionate about this issue. Be sure to include people with disabilities on your committee… “Nothing about us without us” is an essential mantra of the disability rights movement. “Inclusion is central to our Jewish values, and it is also critical for the strength and diversity of our religious communities,” says Dr. Miriam Heyman, Program Officer at the Ruderman Family Foundation. “When people with disabilities are included, they contribute to the vitality of their communities through their membership, their leadership, and all of the individual talents that they bring. From the perspective of Jewish continuity, this is a contribution that we cannot afford to miss.”
  4. Take note of who’s not there: While surveying your community is an important step, you’ll also want to give attention to who isn’t coming through your doors. Transportation can be a huge accessibility barrier for adults with disabilities, particularly for those who are living in group homes or institutional settings. Paratransitcan be unreliable at best—with people often waiting for hours or being stranded at events. Many synagogues are creating carpool committees or creating rideshare pools to help people get to events. “ It’s about opening ourselves up to the possibility that our community is not complete,” says educator Lisa Friedman. “This means we have to be willing to ask questions, often difficult ones, and do something with the answers. To be truly inclusive is to have the confidence to look at our congregations critically and explore what it will take to open the door even wider.”
  5. Set attainable goals: Accessibility and inclusion are a process—and some steps will require time, energy and money. When congregations identify physical changes needed for accessibility, they may need to set up a fundraiser, search for a grant or donor to fund that project. Look for low-cost solutions that can make your building more accessible in the meantime.
  6. Focus on attitude: One change that your community can start working on right away is increasing awareness. Plan a community-wide program for JDAIM, bring in a speaker about inclusion or watch and discuss one of these ELI Talks. Encourage clergy to speak about accessibility and inclusion from the bima through the year. You can download and use this synagogue welcoming card created by Jewish Learning Venture.
  7. Communicate internally and externally: As you make your community more accessible, make sure to let everyone know! “Statements in the weekly bulletin, a mission statement with the message posted and preached, ushers and greeters being trained to be helpful and inviting, creating a system to find out what accommodations are needed for every event or program are all helpful,” says Dr. Jennifer Gendel, Inclusion Specialist for the USCJ. “We have synagogues that want to be part of the Ruderman Inclusion Action Community sign an agreement that the rabbi will speak from the pulpit about inclusion two times a year.” Make sure that what you offer in terms of accessibility is also posted on your website.
  8. Share the cost of inclusion: One of the greatest challenges that families raising children with special needs face is economic burden — many therapies and educational supports aren’t covered by insurance and many families need to hire lawyers just to get their children the appropriate education that is their legal right. Many times, these are the families who come to our synagogues and community centers and are told that they need to pay more tuition if their child needs an aide. We shouldn’t put a tax on having a disability. Work with your board to determine the cost for inclusion and fundraise to support all families.
  9. Engage in professional development: We can’t expect staff who have had no training in accessibility and inclusion to know how to support kids, teens and adults with disabilities. Invest in professional development for your professional staff, including early childhood and religious school teachers and youth leaders. “If we are to really include diverse learners in Jewish education, we need educators who know how to differentiate instruction and foster a positive classroom culture where all learners are valued and find the experience valuable. Over the years, we’ve found that these are skills we can absolutely develop in teachers through embedded coaching and training,” says Arlene Remz, Executive Director of Gateways in Boston. “Of course, teachers must commit themselves to strengthening their practice, but, assuming they do, better teaching will lead to more inclusive schools and classrooms.”
  10. Commit to an ongoing process: Accessibility requires ongoing attention…as the needs of your community change, your efforts towards inclusion will grow and evolve. Empower and support leaders in your community who can keep the issue of accessibility at front and center.

Click here to read more stories on synagogue life in the Forward’s guide to synagogues.

Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer directs Whole Community Inclusion at Jewish Learning Venture and edits The Jewish Week’s the New Normal: Blogging Disability. Her latest book The Little Gate-Crasher was a JDAIM Reads selection and she loves speaking about inclusion.


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