Welcoming Chaverim, for Developmentally Disabled Adults

It is the responsibility of every Jewish community to make Jewish life and celebration accessible to every Jew and Jewish family.

by Rabbi Paul Kipnes

Torah teaches, “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind.” The RiPiK, a twentieth century commentator, suggested that beyond refraining from placing blocks, we should actively remove stumbling blocks. To what might this be compared?

A story

Even as the Director of Chaverim, a local program for developmentally disabled adults asked the question, his discomfort was evident: “How do you feel about opening your congregation to a local group for developmentally disabled adults?”

“Why wouldn’t we?” I asked.

“We’ve been to other synagogues that have opened their doors, only to slowly push us out, after their members became uncomfortable with the presence of our members,” he responded.

The conversation continued. “What’s the worst that might happen?” I asked.

“We have one member who can sing loudly, and sometimes off-key.” He paused, “And you might have someone read slowly, completing a communal reading after others have already finished.”

“Sounds like some of our current members.”

“However, they will usually be accompanied by the Chaverim program director or program rabbi, either of whom will help direct our members if necessary. Would you like to come by one of our events to check out the Chaverim members?”

“Why? Give me a heads up when you think there might be an issue. Make sure that in the early months you attend services only when I am leading them. That way I can witness and deal with any issues that might arise.”

So We Welcomed Chaverim

“Yes, we would love to welcome you,” I said. “Let me speak to our Board in two weeks, when I know they will openly embrace the idea and your members. We will extend to any of your members full membership at our synagogue. Two High Holy Day tickets per Chaverim member – one for the member, one for his/her driver or guest. We will make you, as Director of Chaverim, a complimentary synagogue member, so that we can give you access to our synagogue after-hours for use during your scheduled programs and classes. We ask only that your members fill out a synagogue membership form so we can get them into our system.”

“They should pay membership dues,” he said. “So that they have a sense of commitment. How much should they need to pay?”

“We won’t care. Whatever you think is appropriate. No more than $50; no less than $10. We only ask that they pay it in one lump sum, to ease the work on our bookkeeper. To make it easier, you collect the forms and information, and pass them onto my assistant, who will oversee the processing of the forms.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to meet them first?” he inquired.

“Listen, we pride ourselves on being a congregation that is open and welcoming. And we have families with developmentally disabled children and relatives. So no, I don’t need to approve them. They are Jews. Let them come home.”

Not a Mitzvah (good deed), but a Mitzvah (religious obligation)

It saddens me when I hear kvelling about how this synagogue or that is especially accessible to people with disabilities. This is no mitzvah (colloquially, a good deed); it is a mitzvah (literally, a religious obligation). It is the responsibility of every Jewish community to make Jewish life and celebration accessible to every Jew and Jewish family. We strive to remove stumbling blocks from before all Jews – including those with disabilities.

As expected, the Board discussion lasted less than five minutes. The motion to welcome Chaverim was a “no-brainer.” Our CFO and his wife volunteered to be the liaisons with the program; our Program Director was tasked with smoothing the process from the staff side. We created a new membership category called ‘Chaverim,’ though we were aware that it would be a few months before anyone would officially sign up.

The next week, we designated a few Friday nights as Shabbatot when they would officially come worship with us. As I had been informed, only a few Chaverim regulars showed up at the first services to check us out and to make sure we were welcoming. Based on guidance from the Chaverim Director, early in the service when we welcome others, I just said, “We welcome our members who are connected to Chaverim, a program for developmentally disabled adults, ages 18-88.” We did not ask them to identify themselves at that time; we let them just be Jews at services.

A Service Honoring Exceptional People

We are now close to a year into our relationship. I am told that Chaverim members have attended services regularly and appreciate NOT being singled out. They hang out at the oneg like everyone else; last week I enjoyed watching our president chatting up a few Chaverim members, just like she does ever other non-regular who shows up at services. A few read prayers in our annual Service Honoring Exceptional People (our annual “Special Needs” service); others sang along and just felt like they belonged.

All because of one 20-minute phone call, one email from the Rabbi, five minutes in a board meeting, and a few calls by the Program Director. All in the span of a month.

That, and because we took seriously the Torah teaching, “Do not put a stumbling block before the blind.” It should be that easy. Please tell us your story.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes is rabbi of Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, California and blogs at Or Am I?

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