A wheelchair-accessible ramp. Credit: riopatuca/Shutterstock.
A wheelchair-accessible ramp. Credit: riopatuca/Shutterstock.
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Synagogues can serve those with disabilities better without risking security, experts say

Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month is “an opportunity to amp up what we’re always doing,” said Rebecca Schrag Mayer of Yachad.

Rivka Herzfeld loves the idea that Jewish law calls for new dishes to be dipped in a mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath, and that one thanks God before using such utensils. The resident of Teaneck, N.J. just needs a way to access the water.

Herzfeld uses a motorized scooter to get around, which means that the founder and CEO of the nonprofit Pashut Solutions, which helps venues become more accessible for those with disabilities, needs a ramp to access the mikvah.

That’s not something upon which she and others with physical disabilities can always count.

February is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month, and Rebecca Schrag Mayer, director of Yachad New York, told JNS that it represents “an opportunity to amp up what we’re always doing.”

“The point of this month is an invitation to everyone to take a step back,” she said. “Just to realize who isn’t there and something small we can do to make everyone feel comfortable.”

Yachad, an agency of the Orthodox Union, dedicated to “enriching the lives of Jewish individuals with disabilities and their families,” created a calendar for the month with each day assigned its own theme.

Feb. 2 encouraged using “inclusive body language,” and Feb. 6 recommended attending shiurim, or Torah classes. Feb. 16 called for people to learn brachot, or blessings, in sign language. Feb. 25 is “disabilities in media.” Along with these themed days, the Yeshiva University book sale is going on from Feb. 4 to Feb. 26.

Wheelchair Accessibility
Ramp to assist accessibility for those in wheelchairs. Credit: AndrzejRembowski/Pixabay.

‘They do it because it’s the right thing’

Erica Baruch is a Jewish disabilities advocates adviser at Jewish Family Service of Colorado, where she works with 12 Jewish organizations in Denver and Boulder, as well as a consultant who works with nonprofits, schools, religious institutions and government agencies, per her LinkedIn profile.

Baruch told JNS that religious organizations do not need to comply legally with the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. “They do it because it’s the right thing,” she said.

“Accessibility is really important because if you can’t get into the building, if you can’t use the bathroom, then you can’t be there,” she said. “You can’t be part of the community.”

Mezuzahs can be hung lower on walls to allow easier access for all. Credit: BRBurton23/Pixabay.

Automatic door openers can be useful for those who need them, but they can conflict with a synagogue’s or other Jewish organization’s security needs, particularly in the midst of surging antisemitism. When considering security, Jewish organizations should also remember that there need to be ways for those with disabilities to evacuate quickly, in the event of a fire, active shooter or other emergency, Baruch said.

Among the ways that some synagogues have sought to become more accessible are ramps leading up to the bimah; sound systems that are compatible with different sorts of implants for hearing; wheelchair-accessible sanctuary seating; and renovated bathrooms.

Herzfeld told JNS that others—pregnant women, the elderly, parents of young children in strollers, anyone with an injury—can also benefit from accessible shul buildings.

Yachad recommends that synagogue leaders consider widening aisles in sanctuaries to accommodate wheelchairs, large-print prayer books and mechanisms to facilitate those with physical impairments being called up to the Torah or opening the ark.

Many changes don’t require significant funds, according to Baruch.

One religious school moved a student’s classes to the main floor since the student was unable to ascend or descend stairs, she said. Lowering mezuzahs or adding a mezuzah at a lower height (traditional observers often touch them and say a blessing), also doesn’t cost much.

“The things that you can do without major fundraising, you do,” she said. “And you talk about it. You talk about why you’re lowering the mezuzahs. You talk about why you’re holding services in the social hall.”

“You raise awareness, and the hope is that builds momentum,” she said.

Herzfeld’s synagogue spent $1,500 turning a step from the sanctuary women’s section to an elevator into a ramp, allowing a smoother path for her scooter. That wasn’t free, and it took three days to complete, but it was a substantially cheaper fix than leveling the entire women’s section, she said.

‘Finding places where everyone belongs’

A survey of more than 2,300 Jews released in November 2021 found that 31% percent thought the Jewish community was doing “extremely” or “very” well, including those with disabilities in synagogues and Jewish organizations, and at communal events. More than four in 10 (41%) thought the Jewish community was doing “somewhat” well, according to the survey by the nonprofit RespectAbility.

Jewish Boy in Wheelchair at Mikvah
A young Jewish boy in a wheelchair is lowered into the water at the Mikve Tehera in Efrat, Israel. Disabled in wheelchairs will, with the help of new electronic equipment as the facility modernizes its utilities, be able to bathe in the mikvah. Aug. 17, 2016. Photo by Gershon Elinson/Flash90.

“When asked where the community found the ‘most access and inclusive environment’ and where they found the ‘most challenges for access and inclusion’ of people with disabilities, the largest response was the same for both questions—synagogues,” per the survey.

More than one in five (21%) said that “synagogues have the most access while 18% said synagogues have the most challenges,” according to RespectAbility. “This follows multiple efforts to expand inclusion at synagogues and demonstrates the inconsistencies in disability inclusion among varied institutions.”

Mayer told JNS that the isolation that came with the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns reversed progress made over the more than 15 years she has been at Yachad.

“We were so focused on expanding our circle and finding places where everyone belongs,” she said, of the pre-pandemic days. Then lockdown restrictions came.

“The first people you’re limiting are the outliers,” she told JNS.

When restrictions lifted on the size of religious gatherings, many synagogues retained a mindset that they had developed—faster and quieter prayer services, with less singing and dancing. The faster clip posed challenges to those who already struggled to keep up, Mayer said.

Baruch added that “the more we talk about it, the more we raise awareness about the different disabilities that exist in our community.”

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