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Why Are Synagogues Exempt from Accommodating Disability?
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Opinion

Why Are Synagogues Exempt from Accommodating Disability?

Jewish institutions should be leading the charge for inclusion, not opting out of it.

(Flickr Commons)
(Flickr Commons)

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a seminal piece of legislation which protects people with disabilities from discrimination.

Significantly, discrimination is not limited to acts of commission; it includes acts of omission as well. According to the ADA, a bus company or restaurant that does not allow for access for people in wheelchairs is discriminating against them.

Why discriminating? Because providing accommodations is not something “nice” that we do for people with disabilities. Every person is entitled to the same dignity and has the same rights as everyone else. These include the right to education, to equal access to public goods and services, to equal access to places of employment, and to fair and equal treatment in the workplace.

The same is true when we frame it in terms of needs. A person in a wheelchair does not have different needs —  a ramp — than one who is not. The need — to have access to the building — is the same from person to person. It is the accommodations that might differ.

Fixing this starts with recognizing that our society, in the way it is set up and the norms that we have defined, regularly excludes people with disabilities, and regularly violates their basic rights.

Rabbi Dov Linzer (Courtesy)

We are a far cry from that worldview. While the ADA has had success in changing the legal realities of our society, much work remains to be done. As long as people continue to perceive the providing of accommodations as basically extra credit, then while we might achieve compliance to the law, there will be no deep and systemic change.

It is therefore particularly painful to me that 30 years ago, religious institutions lobbied for, and won, exclusion from the provisions of the ADA due to the undue cost that they would incur. It is hard to justify such an exemption: The cost to religious institutions would be no greater than that to any other institution, and the law already provides for cases where the financial burden is too great.

It is here that the Jewish community and its social, communal, educational and religious institutions can and must step in. These institutions can play a major role in educating and sensitizing people and in shaping the culture, norms and ethos of our community. And they can do this with a Torah voice. They can articulate the principle that humans were created in God’s image and that every individual is of equal and infinite worth. They can point to the founding of the public school system in the Land of Israel two millennia ago, which was done specifically to enable those without means and without access to be educated. They can demonstrate through teaching and action that the mandate to not “put a stumbling block before the blind,” translates directly into removing all barriers of access, whether physical or otherwise.

And they can teach that when the Torah says that the ger, the sojourner, must be treated equally in all ways, the Torah is telling us that we have an increased responsibility to those who are the most likely to be pushed to the margins of society and who are told in so many ways that they don’t belong; that we must do everything in our power to ensure that everyone is treated as the equal member of society her or she is.

Among the institutions that can do this are our synagogue. Synagogues, and the rabbis who head them, have a unique position in society. One of gravitas and of representing the Jewish tradition. It is they who can and should be at the forefront of the fight for equal rights for those with disabilities.

And yet, as a result of the exemption, synagogues and other religious institutions, which should be leading the charge for inclusion, are in fact in the rear, trailing way behind the rest of us.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Even with the exemption to the law, religious organizations can choose to live up to their stated values and to take up leadership roles in this area. Within the Orthodox Jewish community, one organization stands out in particular. The Orthodox Union, an umbrella organization for Orthodox Jewish schools, youth programs, and more, has been outstanding in this regard, investing enormous resources in advocacy, education and support, as well as training and resources for synagogues. Many synagogues and schools have stepped up, but there are still far too many which have not, and I believe that the situation is similar in other faith communities.

Living up to your values is hard, especially if money and effort are involved. But we have no other choice.

This issue hit home for me a few months ago. The rabbinical school that I head was providing a series of online Zoom lectures to the general public, and I was slated to give one on the topic of Jewish Law and the Deaf. A week before the lecture, we received an email from a person who wanted to know if we would be providing closed captioning for the lecture. I am ashamed to admit what the answer was. At that moment I announced to our staff that from that point forward, every public program would be closed-captioned, regardless of cost. It was about time that we started living up to our values.

Living up to your values is hard, especially if money and effort are involved. But we have no other choice. “It is not what you say that matters, but how you act,” teaches Rabbi Shimon in the Talmud. We might profess certain values, but until we start living them, no one will believe us and nothing is going to change.

After our rabbinical school had provided closed captioning for a number of events, I received a call from a woman who was so moved by our closed-captioning efforts that she volunteered to financially underwrite all of them. The message from this experience was clear to me: If you lead, others will follow.

Rabbi Dov Linzer is the president and Rosh HaYeshiva at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, in Riverdale, New York.

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