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 professionals from Park Slope Jewish Center to share about their process. The following are their reflections:
PSJC has long been an inclusive community in the broadest sense of the phrase, attracting members and families of a variety of backgrounds and Jewish practice, who are looking for a place to belong. We pride ourselves as a community that celebrates people, whoever they may be, old or young, gay or straight, single or married. Our members do not come to PSJC to “be seen,” but to be themselves as part of a larger community. When we imagined a future as an even more inclusive community, we envisioned reaching more families who are looking for ways to provide a supplementary Jewish education for their child with special learning or behavioral needs. We envisioned services and programs that speak to the needs of children and adults with sensory needs and a community that learns about and from each of its members, deepening our understanding of the Jewish values of community, acceptance, and inclusion. We envisioned a synagogue that has no barriers to entry, whether they be physical, emotional, spiritual, or educational.
As a community we also faced a number of obstacles on our journey towards becoming more inclusive. There are financial and logistical barriers that kept us from achieving aspects of our vision in the short-term. As we have moved forward to address inclusion, we have had to work within limitations, including the accessibility challenges of our historic Brooklyn building. Our capital campaign did not raise enough money to replace the chair lift with an elevator, which continues to limit accessibility. Additionally, we have limited space, which constrains the number of on-site programs that can take place at any given time. The building acoustics, while improved, are still challenging to some of our members, and most solutions are quite costly. Our rabbi, executive director, education director, and facilities manager are our only full-time employees. Conversely, our Hebrew School faculty is hourly, making it a challenge to provide professional development at the appropriate level to create inclusive classrooms. Most of our service and adult education leaders are lay-leaders, and will need guidance to think creatively about working through inclusion challenges and opportunities. Finally, as a Conservative congregation, there are realistic questions and concerns in terms of adaptations to our services and inclusion of tools which are able to be used on Shabbat.
We began our process with both small group discussions, as well as one-on-one conversations, to hear about the needs and visions for members of our community. One of the most important things we learned during the initial phase was that the overwhelming concerns of people established within the PSJC community was about inclusion related to the needs of aging congregants and those with physical disabilities; there was very little conversation about families and children with special needs until several months later (perhaps in part due to the timing of our introductory session taking place at the beginning of the summer). Addressing the needs of our existing community, while envisioning and designing a community that met the needs of prospective families, was one of the most important aspects of the process.
The largest challenge we have faced is the lack of time to do everything we want to do. We recognize that inclusion is a process and we want to cultivate leaders and volunteers to help bring our vision to a reality. Shared vision and culture change takes time and we want to strengthen the partnerships we already have from the beginning of the process, cultivate new ones, and create an “all-inclusive” mentality throughout the community. With the size of our community and staff, as well as the realities of our programming schedule, finding a path towards culture change has proven to be a challenge. However, we have been taking important and meaningful steps throughout the year to enhance inclusive practices at PSJC. Inclusion and the celebration of diversity have been key topics during the High Holidays, our Chanukkah re-dedication campaign, the PSJC MLK Day of Service, Hebrew School staff training and Yom Iyyun Tzedek (family day of learning), student dialogues and individualized supports, and ongoing conversations with congregants to address personal needs and concerns. We have taken steps to post information on accessing accommodations on our website and all PSJC publications, built awareness of addressing specialized needs for our ushers and those leading services, and improved our physical structures and supports to include quiet conversation and sensory-friendly spaces when possible, clear signage throughout the building, preferential seating for anyone in need, door access through the yard gate to support mobility issues, large-font versions of siddurim, enlarged print on PSJC emails and weekly announcements, and enhanced lighting in the sanctuary.
Our congregation will continue to strive to meet the needs of our current community members and those who have yet to walk through our doors. We have updated our Hebrew School registration form and Family Programming website page to address our desire to meet the needs of families of children with disabilities and continue to offer to be in conversation about how best we can accommodate the needs we do not yet know about. One of the ways we will measure our success is through the capstone survey that will go out this fall. It is our hope that the community will take notice of the changes we have made and the efforts we continue to make to be a part of this process. It is also a goal of the inclusion leadership that we will create a culture where we are able to respond to a complaint or critique with “how can we help make this work for you,” and actually be able to be in partnership with the different cohorts who have expressed needs as part of this journey.
From the creation of an Inclusion Committee to think about the big picture ideas to the installation of handrails on our bimah, we have much to be proud of at the conclusion of our participation in this process. What we are most proud of is that we know we are not done. We know this is a process that will continue, as we grow the language, tools, and skills necessary to make change at every level of PSJC.
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.