Synagogues are opening the doors to participation by people with disabilities in large numbers. New buildings and remodeling projects follow the requirements provided by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Many synagogues have greeters stationed at the doors to welcome people and direct newcomers to coat rooms, washrooms and the sanctuary. Trained ushers know where assistive listening devices are located and can seat people who use wheelchairs with their family and friends.
This is the eighth time we've recognized Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month! Yes, our communities and our institutions have come a long way. But the glaring truth is that we've only just begun to develop person-centered approaches that support individuals to achieve the quality Jewish lives that they direct themselves.
One of the glaring gaps to surface over the past eight years is how so many people with disabilities are not able to enter into the sacred act of prayer. True, in some synagogues prayer is conducted in English. There are many people, with and without disabilities, who make synagogue membership decisions based on the prevailing language of prayer. But in congregations where Hebrew is the sacred language of prayer, how can people with disabilities, who’ve either never been instructed in Hebrew or who have never experienced the familiarity that comes with frequency, pray? Finding ways to help people with disabilities who haven't belonged to a shul or learned Hebrew is another way that congregations can support meaningful participation.
Granted, prayer is a personal and private conversation wtih God that can be held in any language. But when the congregation is davening in Hebrew, people can feel distanced and isolated. It is much like traveling in a foreign country and not knowing the language. One can observe what is happening, but the essence and the nuance of that language is missing.
Our goal for inclusion is to provide support for people to participate in the ways that are important to them. Prayer is an essential point of entry for many people with disabilities into Jewish living. By recognizing that some people come to our shuls without the knowledge of the prevailing language of prayer, we support them in a number of ways.
Here are just a few:
1. You can sit with someone and guide them through the prayerbook by turning the pages, pointing to transliteration, and even (quietly) explaining the prayers.
2. If your synagogue has a prayer book Hebrew class, extend invitations to people who may be new or who may not know that you offer such a class.
3. Offer a class on the liturgy, explaining the order of prayers and what they mean.
4. Pair people up as davening buddies at services. In addition to increasing familiarity with the prayers, people will begin to form relationships around this sacred act.
5. All of us acquire stronger skills with frequency. Encourage people with disabilities to attend services regularly.
Communal prayer is the foundation of synagogue life. Providing pathways for people with disabilities to pray with understanding opens doors to a richer Jewish life.
Shelly Christensen, MA FAAIDD, is the co-founder of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. Shelly literally wrote the book on inclusion, Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities. She is on the faculty of the Union for Reform Judaism, the Jewish Leadership Institute on Disabilities and Inclusion, and is on the Ruderman Chabad Inclusion Initiative core team. Shelly is a frequent speaker and consults with Jewish and other faith communities. She and her husband have three sons, one of whom lives with Asperger syndrome, two grandsons and a Deaf Sheltie named Penina. Reach her at Shelly@inclusioninnovations.com.