Editor’s Note: On July 5, the New Normal published Part I of this piece, which exhorts people with disabilities to take ownership of their High Holiday experience by discussing necessary accommodations in advance with their rabbi and synagogue staff. In Part II, Rabbi Michael Levy suggests specific questions people with disabilities might find useful to ask in the days leading up to Rosh Hashannah, which starts September 4.
An Important Turning Point
My parents, may they rest in peace, once did all my High Holiday planning. When I began exploring other synagogues, it became my rightful responsibility to arrange for Braille prayer books wherever I worshipped. This was, of course, essential when it was I who was leading the services. We must each consider our disability and plan accordingly.
Accessing the Synagogue
If you or your child have a mobility impairment, you need to check now about the presence of steps leading to the synagogue entrance or within the building. Can seats be arranged so that you sit with other worshippers, and not in a corner? Can you open the Ark or accept an aliyah if you are asked to do so? If you have a respiratory impairment or multiple chemical sensitivity, will the ventilation be adequate? Can the synagogue bathrooms accommodate wheelchair users?
Some of the above accommodations can be at least partially met given enough advanced notice. If some accommodations are unmanageable in the main service, perhaps they can be arranged in a second service. In some areas containing steps, ramps can be purchased or rented. If absolutely necessary, a mobility-impaired person called to the Torah might be able to recite the requisite blessings at the bottom of the steps.
Accessing the Prayers
If you need prayerbooks in Braille or large print, request them NOW! Organizations which provide them will be swamped with requests just before the holidays. If VERY LARGE print is required, it might be advisable to use technology to enlarge selected pages as much as is needed.
If the standard prayerbook does not meet the needs of your child with a cognitive, learning or behavior-related disability, consult with a creative educator (or your own creativity) and customize a prayerbook for the individual worshipper. Pictures and stories always help.
And if a child (or adult) can’t sit still though a 3-4 hour service, arrange activities in advance.
Other accommodations include sign language interpreters, planning for the presence of a Seeing Eye dog, adequate lighting and making sure that lip-readers have a direct “line of sight” to the rabbi or cantor. If the synagogue offers a “break-fast” snack, make sure that there’s no barrier between it and the hungry worshippers who have disabilities. Does a congregant need a table on which to eat, a drinking straw or assistance in getting the food?
A Final Reason to Plan Ahead — We Live in An Imperfect World
It is unfortunate that resistance to accommodations still exists. Also, architectural and financial factors sometimes make it hard for even the most willing congregations to remove all the barriers that keep us from worshipping.
Removing barriers to synagogue participation is an ongoing process. As Rabbi Tarfon stated in Ethics of the Fathers (Chapter 2, Mishna 16,) “While it is not your responsibility to complete the task, neither are you free to exempt yourself from it.”
Start your High Holiday journey now–call, email or write at the next opportunity.
A native of Bradley Beach, New Jersey, Rabbi Michael Levy attributes his achievements to God’s beneficence and to his courageous parents. His parents supported him as he explored his small home town, visited Israel and later studied at Hebrew University, journeyed towards more observant Judaism, received rabbinic ordination, obtained a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University and lectured on Torah- and disability-related topics.
As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah — the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center (www.yadempowers.org), Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons –boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY.