All Access

As 5784 begins, Jewish communities pushed to consider greater accessibility

Synagogues and other institutions are increasingly considering how to include people with disabilities ahead of the High Holy Days.

“Which of the following best describes the areas [in your synagogue] which are accessible to members of your community with physical disabilities? 1) The entrance, outdoor spaces, social hall, classrooms, and bathrooms; 2) The above PLUS the ark, bimah, and mezuzot on all doorposts; 3) The above AND we have a pushcart for the Torah for anyone to carry it; 4) None of the above.” 

This is but one question in a new interactive inclusion quiz to help individuals and organizations in the Jewish community assess their accessibility. The quiz was developed by the team at Matan, an organization that works with Jewish community leaders and educators to strengthen and improve inclusion for people with disabilities and their families. The launch is meant to dovetail with communities considering their intentions for 5784, which Matan leadership hopes will make the forthcoming year one of inclusion in Jewish spaces. 

“Whether disabilities are visible or invisible, statistically speaking, the prevalence is undeniable; in an era of diversity, equity, inclusion and justice, we must live the Jewish value of being responsible for one another and making sure that we all experience true belonging,” said Dori Frumin-Kirshner, CEO of Matan. “Disability inclusion is too often an afterthought. Our hope is that, year round, inclusion and accessibility for people in the Jewish community with mental health challenges, neurodiversities, mobility issues, etc. become much less of an ‘us versus them’ and much more of a ‘we’ collective.” 

The quiz and the survey that will come from it will help people begin to ask the right questions, Frumin-Kirshner said. “Know that you do not need to have all the answers.” 

As synagogues and other institutions prepare for the High Holy Days, they are responding to challenges around accessibility for people with disabilities. Community-based organizations like federations are also providing grants to local efforts — at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, $100,000 in new grants were given to local organizations looking to scale up accessibility in their young adult programs.

“As our Jewish community becomes increasingly diverse in its backgrounds, experiences, and needs, it is imperative we continue to create space where all who want to engage and connect can find a communal home in Jewish Greater Washington,” said the federation’s CEO, Gil Preuss. “Federation’s $100,000 investment helps organizations directly respond to the needs of the community and ensures people of all abilities are able to fully participate.” 

Naomi Yadin-Mendick, a federation board member and chair of its disability inclusion committee, said that although the grants had not been specifically targeted for use in synagogues, a number of grantees were applying funds toward efforts they already had underway, particularly to fund tech advancements or ASL interpretation. One grantee created a sensory room for adults with disabilities, for example.

Pandemic pivot turned present plan

The pandemic taught Jewish organizations that they’d have to be nimble and think outside of the box. But even the most accessible congregations didn’t see COVID coming. 

“So many of the things that would make Jewish communal life more accessible for people with disabilities made it more accessible for the whole community during the pandemic,” Yadin-Mendick observed, recalling the evolution of Zoom technology and expansion into captioning and then to hybrid services, so people could participate remotely if they wanted or needed to. “In some ways, it made things more isolating for some people with disabilities, especially depending on what the disability is and and where they are geographically. But on the other hand, I think it’s opened some things up radically,” said the federation board member.

Rabbi Sarah Fort, associate rabbi of Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston, said that during the height of COVID, the synagogue had someone with a camera shooting the Torah service over the shoulder of the person reading from it; this became a tradition that they kept even as the COVID danger waned: the people who were physically present liked being able to see the text as it’s read. 

“It’s a great example of how ‘disability inclusion’ efforts can benefit both the disabled and abled communities, if you needed more of a reason to do it!” Fort said.

Another program that began during the pandemic and is still running is Friendship Circle’s Rosh Hashanah shofar sounding in the park: the program particularly works well with individuals with disabilities, said Rabbi Mendel Kaplan, who runs the Maryland and Washington, D.C., area branch, which is also a JFGW grant recipient. Outside, the shofar isn’t too loud and won’t bother those with sound sensitivity, and being spread out is better than a small space for people who get anxiety from big crowds, he said.

“For us, inclusion is not a new thing,” said Kaplan, a Chabad rabbi. “It’s a natural thing, how the [Lubavitcher] Rebbe educated all of us. There is love and beauty in every individual…People need people,” Kaplan said.

Kaplan told eJP that he believes that “ultimately the right thing [is] not to have virtual services,” and while violation of Shabbat’s electricity ban is undoubtedly part of this position, shul “is not about watching a performance, it’s about connecting with people, gathering and creating an environment that leads to the spiritual experience of feeling connected with others and yourself and God,” said Kaplan, who pairs up college students with young adults with disabilities for social interaction and relationship-building. “Come out, connect with others. There’s an energy in the air you can’t get over an electronic device.”

Many congregations that embraced virtual services kept that channel open to a degree after the immediate COVID transmission danger was over — people agreed while attending services over the internet wasn’t ideal, if you couldn’t physically be there, it was the next best thing. 

“The pandemic is still relevant and present in our lives,” Alexandra Tureau, managing director of young adult group Gather DC, said, adding that technology gave easy access to content and community. “We can’t go back. We can only go forward and get better, and use all the resources we have to become more inclusive.”

“Respond as things happen”

Many accommodations for disabilities have been requested at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y., over the years: seating in a row that’s completely accessible and near the bathroom; a seat among the fixed pews that can be removed when a wheelchair arrives; music stands placed in accessible rows to hold the heavy, large-print machzorim (holiday prayer books) and magnifying sheets; earplugs in case the sound is too loud; a headphone system if it’s not loud enough. Some people need rides to synagogue, others accessible parking near the entrance, nursing areas, clear signage, unobstructed hallways.

Michelle Steinhart, who has worked at TIC for 24 years, many of them as director of learning and inclusion, says that congregants are encouraged to share accessibility needs in their registrations for membership and/or High Holy Days. And, she added, synagogue professionals on-site “respond to the need as things happen,” and rely on ushers and other members as facilitators of accessibility. 

 All of this, Steinhart said, is part of “the vibe” of TIC. 

“Living Jewishly and building relationships…that’s where inclusion becomes part of the culture. It comes from real efforts, understanding that they are important,” Steinhart said.

“All the people are empowered. Anything that’s happening is from a frame of inclusion…what can we connect them with,” she said. Because their Hebrew school is inclusive, “that becomes the vibe of the shul,” Steinhart said. “When that’s the culture, the community sees it as their responsibility as well.” 

At Houston’s Beth Yeshurun, each of the synagogue’s daily High Holy Days services has a “welcome cart” or “welcome basket” available, containing noise-dampening headphones, weighted lap pads (to help calm sensory-seeking kids and adults), information about requesting assisted-listening devices, or visual/tactile stim object (like a fidget spinner) — expanding inclusion and community to those with developmental, sensory, learning and emotional disabilities. 

“Hearing the relief from parents who have children with sensory processing disorder (SPD) or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to know that their child can be a part of High Holy Days or Hanukkah or Purim in even more ways is worth the time doing the research and instituting change takes,” Fort said. 

The synagogue also instituted a sensory and disability-friendly Rosh Hashanah service, with congregants with disabilities leading prayers and taking roles in the service, with the visibility for disabled prayer leadership meeting with very positive reactions. 

“It is a treasured part of the larger effort to make our mainstream spaces more inclusive, while also honoring the disabled community’s needs and desires for their own space. Ultimately, shouldn’t all Jews get to feel like they belong when they are at shul? And if they’re not there, the onus is on those curating the space.”

“Meeting the moment”

GatherDC helps hundreds of Jews in their 20s and 30s in the Greater Washington area connect to each other and to Jewish life. So when holding a larger event, like an alternative Yom Kippur event that draws over 100 people, “we want to make sure that anyone can come through those doors and be able to focus on the spiritual resonance of the day, not on whether they can move through the space,” Tureau told eJP. “Every young adult deserves that Jewish connection and community, whether it’s the High Holy Days or any time of year, I think that young people often demand [accessibility] and rightfully so.”

On an organizational front, GatherDC puts it in writing on signup forms and applications: “We want to hear anything you need to make this an accessible community,” also asking what special needs or accommodations registrants need to make the community accessible for them.

Tureau also noted the increase in synagogues offering ASL services, which GatherDC has been providing for the past few years,” she said. “ASL services are really vital to our Deaf community members, how they experience Jewish communal spaces and how they connect, especially around the High Holy Days.”

“When we host experiences, we try to provide as many resources as possible upfront, and always make sure there’s an opportunity for someone to tell us what they need to create a truly accessible experience for them,” Tureau said. On the other hand, she added, “You can’t assume what people need. Listen to them. But sometimes there are resources that are just right to provide.”

The organization has been accused of taking this inclusivity approach too far. Last year, GatherDC caused a stir by hosting an “intentional Yom Kippur lunch,” which was criticized as undermining the spirit of the day, either by exalting a situation that is traditionally considered to be an unfortunate but necessary situation — people being barred from fasting for mental or physical health reasons — or even by giving communal approval to people who do not fast because they simply don’t want to. 

Tureau said she was grateful for the federation’s support. “It shows we’re taking serious steps toward more inclusive spaces,” she said. “Anything worth doing in the community takes time, energy, effort, and care and resources and dollars and so we’re trying to meet the moment every time we can.”

Allocating significant funds to a smaller initiative like Friendship Circle sends the message that “we want this community to be inclusive of everyone,” Kaplan added. “We are only as strong as our weakest link.” 

Pandemic impact, past and present

During the pandemic, Zoom provided unparalleled access and was an incredible blessing; but for those who are still high risk and not comfortable being in person, it can feel spiritually isolating, said community Rabbi Lauren Tuchman, a consultant to Jewish organizations on disability access and inclusion.

“How do we be as maximally inclusive as we possibly can be with the resources we have and figure out what we need to become even more inclusive?…What are the things that I really aspire to do and what am I limited in being able to provide, so that is the broad struggle.”

“There are people who want services indoors, and there are people who want to have services outdoors, both for accessibility reasons,” Tuchman added, calling this an “access conflict” — when two essential needs conflict with each other. People also have Covid exhaustion, Tuchman said, with some people ready to put it behind them and others who are immunocompromised or otherwise at-risk and cannot do so. 

“All of these things are true at once and I think we will be navigating them for the foreseeable future,” she said. “We should do the absolute best we can to anticipate needs, knowing that things are going to come up that we never anticipated,” Tuchman said. Because communities have different needs, she added, “no one size fits all.”

“The accommodations are really important, but what’s under that is the spiritual belonging,” she said, “and if we’re not addressing the spiritual belonging, then then we’re not covering the whole picture.” 

Tuchman also urged care and compassion for those who are seeking belonging and acceptance. “The biggest issue that I encounter professionally is when people feel like the community just doesn’t care about them. That’s where the spiritual crisis happens,” she said. “There are lots of things that we don’t know about every person who walks through our doors….we just can’t fix everything. Being a patient and loving presence is the best that we can do. And it’s really an ongoing reparative, challenging process.”