Synagogues for All Abilities:
A Study on Being Inclusive
By Elisa Blank and Lisa Friedman
“Inclusion is a process not a destination.”
At the core of a thriving congregation is a commitment to ensuring that every individual is valued and has a place in the community. UJA-Federation of New York’s Synagogue Inclusion Project engages with synagogues to create communities where people of all abilities are valued, included, and can fully participate in congregational life. Participation in the Synagogue Inclusion Project provides congregations with opportunities to learn, grow, and increase their capacity around the inclusion of people with disabilities.
UJA Federation of New York has published Synagogues for all Abilities: A Study on Being Inclusive, a report (that highlights the experiences of a sample of participating congregations from the first two cohorts in the Synagogue Inclusion Project, bringing to light the key factors that enabled their success. To date, 22 congregations have participated in the project. The synagogues vary in membership size, physical and staff resources, denominational affiliation, and urban and suburban settings. Congregations participated in an intensive process, beginning with a 360° assessment (Synagogue Inclusion Inventory) to identify strengths and challenges, followed by the creation of an action plan that pinpointed goals including immediate changes, short-term opportunities, and long-term aspirations. The entire process from assessment to implementation was guided by synagogue leadership with mentorship and support from their individual project coach.
The central finding of this report is that meaningful, sustainable change in the area of disability inclusion need not be significantly time–consuming nor cost–prohibitive. In fact, there are many simple, cost-effective ways to increase accessibility that will help to shape the inclusive culture of the synagogue community.
Additional key findings include:
1. No one person within a congregation can effect sustainable change on their own.
Advancing the goal of increased disability inclusion is dependent on a congregation’s ability to engage both committed lay leaders and professionals who will not only move specific tasks forward but will also cultivate additional leadership committed to a vision of sustained inclusion.
2. Inclusive does not mean expensive.
Learning to recognize bias, dispel long-held assumptions, and change attitudes costs no money. In addition, many of the changes a synagogue can make to help its membership embrace a culture of inclusion cost very little. While many synagogue buildings require costly changes to become fully accessible, such efforts can happen alongside culture change. A congregation need not wait until it has the means to do it all; rather, when a synagogue starts with what is within its means, opportunities for more often open along the way.
3. Inclusion is a process, not a destination.
Becoming an inclusive congregation is not about checking items off a list and reaching an end-point. Rather, an inclusive synagogue recognizes that the needs of all members are constantly changing. A large part of inclusion is being prepared to address needs as they arise as well as being flexible enough to shift or adapt when the situation requires it.
4. Transparency is critical.
Openly sharing a community’s inclusive efforts increases awareness and helps to both shift the culture of the congregation at large as well as bring forward additional concerns for consideration. While a synagogue can engage in any number of tasks to become more accessible and inclusive, if the membership at large is unaware of these efforts, they have not truly met their goal of becoming an inclusive community.
Although the process of becoming inclusive is an ongoing aspiration, the report details steps you can take along with resources you can use to help your congregation begin a new process, or deepen their existing process of becoming more inclusive:
1. Assemble a team of key stakeholders to shepherd the work.
2. Conduct a self-assessment before you begin and along the way.
3. Recognize that true inclusion requires a culture shift.
4. Work toward a bold vision that includes a message of inclusion of people of all abilities.
5. Begin with “low–hanging fruit“ while working toward longer–term goals.
The Synagogue Inclusion Project is intended for teams of professionals and lay leaders creating inclusive synagogue communities for people of all abilities. Congregations in NYC, Westchester, and Long Island are currently being accepted into Phase 3 of the UJA-Federation of New York’s Synagogue Inclusion Project. Apply Now. For more information click here or contact Elisa Blank at firstname.lastname@example.org. This project is made possible through generous funding from the Leo Oppenheimer & Flora Oppenheimer Haas Foundation.
Elisa Blank has spent the past four years at UJA-Federation of New York, managing the Synagogue Inclusion Project as well as serving as the Long Island regional manager for SYNERGY. She is currently UJA’s Long Island community mobilizer. She previously served as director of education at Temple B’nai Torah in Wantagh.
Lisa Friedman is an independent consultant who serves as the project manager of UJA-Federation of New York’s Synagogue Inclusion Project. She consults with congregations, organizations, and camps that wish to become more inclusive. In addition to her role with the Synagogue Inclusion Project, Lisa is an education director at Temple Beth-El in Central New Jersey.