Since March of 2015, six New York area synagogues have been focused on tangibly weaving the inclusion of people with disabilities in the fabric of their communities. UJA-Federation of New York, with funding from the Leo Oppenheimer & Flora Oppenheimer Haas Foundation, piloted The Synagogue Inclusion Project, a groundbreaking 18-month pilot program to create a replicable, sustainable approach to integrating members of our community with disabilities. The pilot synagogue cohort included synagogues large and small, Conservative and Reform, urban and suburban. What bound them together was a stated desire to be inclusive of people with disabilities, but an underlying doubt that they were having the desired impact.
The 18-month process utilized physical and attitudinal evaluations, congregational surveys, “voice-of-the-customer” focus groups, website evaluations, field trips, educator training programs, conferences, and personalized coaching for clergy, staff and lay leadership. These synagogues’ efforts at Park Avenue Synagogue, Temple Beth Emeth v’Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek, Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale, Park Slope Jewish Center, Union Temple of Brooklyn, and Westchester Reform Temple were supported by the nonprofit disability group RespectAbility, which acted as an implementer of the project. Each congregation learned the important processes and infrastructures that need to be in place to be a truly welcoming, inclusive house of worship.
Over the following weeks, each of the participating synagogues will reflect on the changes brought about by their participation in The Synagogue Inclusion Project. It is being shared here for two reasons. First, in the hopes that it will encourage other synagogues to engage in their own journey towards inclusion, respect and dignity for people with disabilities. Secondly, so Jews with disabilities who have not yet found a congregational home will know some of the congregations in the New York area who would love for them to be involved.
We asked to share about CSAIR Rabbi Barry Dov Katz to share about the process. The following is his reflection:
A few days ago, we unpacked a new Torah reading table for our Beit Midrash, the room where we hold daily services. When you open the doors to the base, there is a pull-out table top, the right height for someone who is in a wheelchair or who cannot reach the higher table. Everyone can comfortably have an aliyah, read from the Torah, and lead services. This simple addition makes our table, already beautiful because of its fine Israeli craftsmanship, into something exquisite, a powerful symbol of the journey our congregation began many years ago.
For over three decades, inclusion has been been a part of our Hebrew School program with an educator on staff. Years ago, we built a ramp to our bimah. Still, we wanted to better understand how we could build inclusion of people with disabilities into the structure of our communal life, how we could be more intentional about our efforts. We applied for and were accepted into the UJA-Federation Synagogue Inclusion Project.
From the beginning, the program challenged us. Focus group conversations exposed different perspectives on inclusion, everything from “If we don’t do x or y then we cannot call ourselves inclusive,” to “Look at how we are doing compared to where we were and compared to other institutions!” We asked ourselves: Should we focus on our Hebrew school or our Shabbat morning programs for children? What about adults who are blind or who cannot navigate steps? How about people of any age who are deaf or have processing issues, the so-called invisible disabilities? When we talk about inclusion are we talking about our building or our programs or our attitudes?
An excellent and thorough 360 degree survey of the congregation conducted by RespectAbility, a disability rights organization, revealed illuminating information about how we perceived ourselves and the work we needed to do. There were two major take away lessons:
1. Our members did not know the things we were already doing to increase accessibility. We quietly made accommodations when we were approached but we were not being proactive by asking about disabilities on our Hebrew School forms. We did not have language in our communications that invited people to tell us what they needed in order to participate fully. We needed to be more public about what we were already doing and about the goals we set for ourselves.
2.Inclusion is not about making our shul welcoming to some theoretical “them.” There are or will be times when each one of us will find it a challenge to access the community of meaning and joy that is our shul. For some it will be the steps. For others it will be print that is too small or sound that is not sufficiently amplified. It will be teaching that does not account for the myriad ways people learn or a life circumstance that makes us feel like we are on the outside. We needed to think about inclusion as something we were doing for the whole community, a culture shift, not something we were doing for “them.”
In response, we established a committee of people who cared about this issue. The lay chair of the committee, Susannah Goldstein, did not just care, she was passionate. We engaged our entire staff, devoted significant time to talking about inclusion in our shul and, along with a cohort of other synagogues, participated in trainings sponsored by the Synagogue Inclusion Project.
Thanks to the funding from UJA Federation along with matching funds from the congregation, we focused our attention on hosting an Inclusion Shabbat which featured remarkable sessions. Rabbi Dov Linzer shared a perspective on inclusion steeped in deep Jewish learning. Ruti Regan, a Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical school student, founder of Anachnu, an organization led by Jews with disabilities promoting disability-informed Torah and inclusive community, taught us to be curious when we see people on the autism spectrum acting in ways that we do not understand. A panel of our members shared moments of sadness when, despite what we thought were our good intentions, they felt marginalized or patronized by the community. A sign language interpreter made the program accessible. This weekend galvanized support for the program in the shul at large.
Over the course of the year we expanded our Shabbat and Holiday Greeters program to include more volunteers and to give the people who walk through our doors what they need to feel comfortable. This included where to find the large print siddurim (prayer books), the location of the sensory-sensitive spaces on Purim and at other times, or simply a smile as they walk into a place where everyone else seems to know what they are doing!
As part of a capital campaign, we installed an entrance ramp to our downstairs level and an elevator. This work was celebrated with a large sign which announced to everyone who passed our building, “Pardon our appearance as we make ourselves accessible to people of all abilities: www.csair.org.” Next to these words was an image from the Accessible Icon Project, a “wheelchair in motion” (with the word Shalom added in!) During construction, we received many questions about what we were doing to make ourselves accessible which provided wonderful opportunities to express our values of inclusion, share our successes and to talk about future plans with neighbors.
We discovered that this work created many important internal conversations. Our security committee is now in dialogue with our inclusion committee about how to insure safety along with accessibility. A working group dedicated to LGBTQ inclusion is considering how we can build on past efforts to welcome members of the LGBTQ community. Our lay leadership is talking about how to fund all of the things we want to do in the future. Our work with UJA left us with a long wish for future projects and areas of focus. All of these conversations are crucial to making inclusion a part of our synagogue culture in lasting ways.
Many times during the year, we thought about the Torah’s message that we are all created in God’s image. In response to the challenges facing us as a nation and around the globe as we enter a new year, we started a campaign to post signs in our windows and on our doors for the months of Elul and Tishrei with the words, “We Are All Created In God’s Image.” Our message, inspired by our work around inclusion in the broadest sense: Jews, Muslims, Christians, people of other faiths and no faith- we are all created in God’s image. People of different sexual orientations, races, and identities, people with disabilities, the youngest and the oldest among us- we are all created in God’s image. No matter who you are-you are created in God’s image.
We hope that people will post the sign on Facebook and share it with friends and family along with their own thoughts about why it’s important to assert that each of us is unique and therefore precious. During this holiday season, who knows which person will see the sign and feel like the scales have tipped a little bit in their favor, or in favor of a world that needs to be reminded of what we have in common- our humanity.
And so we continue our work around inclusion with deep thanks to the UJA Federation, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi and Meagan Buren (RespectAbility), and our guide and source of so much information and encouragement, Shelley Richman Cohen (The Jewish Inclusion Project.)
Whoever you are – we hope you will come to learn, pray, and create an inclusive Jewish community with us.
Shelley Richman Cohen is the founding Director of The Jewish Inclusion Project, an inclusion training program for Rabbis, and other communal leaders funded in part by the Ruderman Family Foundation. She was one of the facilitators for The Synagogue Inclusion Project.