Editor's Note: In the blog below, Rabbi Daniel Grossman describes the way that his congregation made accessible choices 25 years ago. Many people are surprised to learn that religious institutions are not required to be ADA compliant.
As I think back 25 years ago to the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, I want to share with you how the passage of the ADA changed my experience of synagogue life. I had just finished my first year at Adath Israel in Trenton, New Jersey when the ADA became a reality. I had worked since Rabbinical School with issues of the deaf, mobility, accessibility and inclusion and now felt able to take serious steps at the synagogue.
The Congregation had agreed from the beginning of my employment that our new building in Lawrenceville, New Jersey would be totally different from the original building built in 1923.
I had made it clear that accessibility and a sense of inclusive community were my goals. The new facility was constructed with the following features to reflect that:
1. The Sanctuary, library, chapel, all offices and all classrooms are located on one continuous floor.
2. The Torah cradles in the Ark are mounted to the wall at a height accessible from a wheel chair, so that everyone can, if they choose, take out, or replace the Torah.
3. The ramp to the Bimah includes two different style of handrails. The ramp is used by everyone. I tell visitors that everyone uses the ramp as we are one congregation.
4. An augmented sound system exists with enough head-set units for members and visitors.
5. Along with the usual books such as Siddur, Chumash, etc., there are also available books in large print, Braille, and if desired, I would conduct all worship in Hebrew, English and Sign Language.
6. There are 12 cut outs in different locations throughout the Sanctuary seating so that those in wheel chairs can choose front, back, or the sides and not be confined to a “wheel chair section.”
Most important is awareness and attitude. Over the years, I have had special staff to augment individual learning and skills. Unique individuals are not limited to children. Over the years, we have had adult members with a wide range of issues: deafness, fragile-x, visual impairment, Tourette Syndrome to name a few. The point is that unique and special needs do not begin and end as children. Everyone is part of one community. Whether it was seeing B’nai Mitzvot in sign language, special accommodations for prayer leaders, or other unique accommodations as needed, the lesson experienced was simple: This is the norm and not the “exception to the norm.”
Over the 25 years that I functioned as rabbi of the synagogue, we were also able to host regional conferences about disability and religion. Adath Israel congregants, along with members of a church and a mosque were interviewed about the openness of their particular House of Worship for a second disc in Ilana Trachtman's documentary "Praying With Lior."
I share these examples, not as a brag list, but to say that awareness throughout the country about these issues has increased in large measure, because of the awareness of the ADA. I have been able to assist synagogues, schools and institutions in many locations, across the country, as to how they can open their homes in realistic ways and not with lip service or a Special Shabbat once a year.
Thank You to the various synagogues, schools, rabbis, and educators, and all who understand that Judaism is only authentic when it is open to all Jews. For every Jew anywhere who has felt left out, ignored, pushed aside or rejected, we celebrate the ADA and the fact that many synagogues now take the message of community and inclusion to heart.
May we go from Strength to Strength and support all who work for a truly barriers-free future.
Rabbi Daniel T. Grossman led Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville, New Jersey for 25 years. He is a graduate of Temple University, Hebrew University, Merkaz HaRav Kook in Jerusalem and the Reconstructionist Rabbincal College. Rabbi Grossman also works in the field of Jewish Special Education and co-wrote and participated in the video “Someone is Listening,” the story of a young deaf Jew and his search for fulfillment as a Jewish adult. He is fluent in several sign languages.