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. The 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. The efforts were supported by the nonprofit disability group RespectAbility, which I lead. Our team, which included Shelley R. Cohen, Meagan Buren and MATAN, was thrilled with the progress.
Over several weeks, each of the participating synagogues are reflecting 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.
Q&A on the Inclusion Initiative at Union Temple of Brooklyn
In their words: Union Temple is one of the oldest Reform synagogues in Brooklyn. We pride ourselves on being a welcoming, egalitarian community. We reach out to the diverse communities of Brooklyn and warmly welcome individuals and all types of families to join us. We are dedicated to Tikkun Olam, through the pursuit of social justice and active participation in the larger Jewish and general communities. We strive to create a Religious School and Synagogue experience that allows for all to feel good about themselves and their Judaism.
1. Why did your synagogue want to be involved in an inclusion initiative?
Union Temple prides itself on being a welcoming and inclusive community. We strive to create a Religious School and Synagogue experience that allows for adults and children to feel good about themselves and their Judaism. In order to accomplish this we needed to learn about what inclusion looks like and feels like. We wanted to know what we were missing, what we needed to do, and how to create a process to make and sustain the necessary changes.
2. What were some of the obstacles in your congregation that you wanted to overcome?
There are several barriers preventing us from accomplishing our vision. Being a small congregation with limited financial resources, in addition to the financial obstacles, we didn’t fully understand what we needed to be a more inclusive synagogue. We pride ourselves on being welcoming, egalitarian and inclusive. Before this process we didn’t see what we were lacking to truly be an inclusive synagogue. We have always been more than happy to make accommodations, but we didn’t have a process set up prior to being asked to make these accommodations. We realized that we were coming from a place of “making reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities” instead of a place of naturally including all people in our synagogue.
3. Where did you start in the inclusion process?
When we started this work, we realized that there were two Union Temples. One included the worship services, brotherhoods and sisterhoods, and other committees made up of mostly older adults. The other, included the religious school, youth group, families, and families with young children who could be potential new members. We did have a family service one Friday night per month. So not only did we need to think about inclusion for people with disabilities, we needed to bridge this existing gap between the 2 Union Temples. In order for this process to work and be effective we felt we needed to start by getting approval and buy in from the temple leadership; from the Rabbi to the Board of Trustees. Inclusion for adults and children in temple life needed to be our starting point for discussion, and continues today.
4. What proved to be the most important part of the process for you?
The most eye-opening part of this process was learning from our congregants where we are lacking with regards to inclusion. The evaluations we conducted really helped us to reflect on our congregants’ perspective, and to step away from the way we as synagogue professionals look at things. We could see what they needed, and what would make us more inclusive according to their needs.
5. What is different at your congregation as a result of this inclusion effort?
We knew things were different this past year when we started talking about preparing for the High Holy Days and the President asked “Where is the sensory room going to be?” As a result of the inclusion effort, we have a different perspective when it comes to planning and executing programs and services. It is now just part of our thinking. We discuss from the beginning of planning, “What are people’s needs in order to participate in our programs?”
6. How well do you think your congregation will be able to accommodate children with disabilities moving forward?
A main focus of our Religious School is providing a Jewish Education for all. We realized our congregation was doing a good job accommodating children with disabilities, as evidenced by the relatively large number of students with disabilities enrolled in our program. Through this initiative we have provided training for our Religious School staff in collaboration with other neighboring synagogues. We have created better communication between the school and parents. We have made it clear to our families, our congregants and the community that we are committed to serving all of our children. We strive to help each child learn and feel comfortable at Union Temple.
7. What was the hardest part of this process, and how did you address it?
The hardest part of this process was prioritizing what we needed to do and when, with our limited resources. We had a long list of areas for improvement and it was overwhelming. Our inclusion committee prioritized our list of goals and starting working on the list. We started with the physical items that were easily accomplished, such as creating a sensory room or location for all programs. We worked our way down the list, item by item, as a team.
8. What surprises did you encounter, if any?
As part of our training for Religious School staff, we participated in awareness sensitivity training. During this training, staff were engaged in role play, simulation and the problem-solving process. For example, during a simulation exercise that required participants to complete an activity in an “unreasonable” given amount of time, one of our Religious School teachers had a “lightbulb” moment. He realized that not everyone can work at the same pace, and that some students require more time to complete a task. The Religious School faculty were surprised by their own limited awareness of individual differences and needs of their students. Starting our training with this opened the eyes the hearts of our faculty and allowed them to create inclusive lesson plans.
9. What are you most proud of after completing this inclusion program?
Margaret Mead said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” We are most proud of the observable and invisible changes that we see throughout our temple community as a result of all the steps we have taken so far to be a more inclusive temple. Some our accomplishments include:
● Use of inclusive language on all temple forms, flyers, and newsletters
● Bar/Bat Mitzvah training, which is now more individualized based on student’s needs
● Religious school faculty training focusing on the use of differentiated strategies and learning environments for all students
● Purchase and enthusiastic use of large print prayer books by our congregants
● The introduction and use of “Visual Tefilah” during Friday night Shabbat services
● Community awareness and acceptance of the needs of all members of our congregational community
● Presentations and articles in our temple newsletter focusing on advocacy for people with disabilities
10. How do you measure your success in this program?
Registration in our religious school this year has increased by 15%. In addition, every class in our religious school has at least one student with a disability. Parent-disclosed disabilities include dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning disability, autism spectrum disorder, and sensory processing disorder. We are seen by the local community as inclusionary and welcoming to all children. Our religious school program continues to grow, and our teachers are growing along with it.
Participation in temple-wide activities has increased, and there is a noticeable “mixing” of younger and older congregants. The generation gap is being bridged.
To be completely inclusive will not happen overnight. It will take time and community effort. In addition to making the physical space inclusive, we are working on making the culture inclusive. With each step that we take, we are a little closer to our ultimate goal of true inclusion.
11. What is one thing you will hold on to that you’ve learned?
This process has been eye opening for our entire community. It showed us what we need to do, but more importantly that we are capable of, and we want to be an inclusive congregation to all people.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is co-founder & president of RespectAbility, a non-profit organization working to enable people with disabilities to have a better future. A person with a disability herself, who knows what it means to parent a Jewish child with multiple disabilities, she also is the co-founder/director of the Mizrahi Family Charitable Fund. You can reach her at JenniferM@RespectAbilityUSA.org.