With the high holidays merely three months away, staff and lay leaders from local congregations are seeking to create more inclusive experiences in welcoming the Jewish New Year.
“The High Holidays are a good time to trigger thought for throughout the year,” noted Drew Barkley, executive director of Temple Sinai.
Barkley, a member of the Pittsburgh Association of Synagogue and Temple Executives (P.A.S.T.E.), was one of nearly a dozen attendees at the Synagogue Forum on Disabilities Inclusion. Held at Congregation Beth Shalom in Squirrel Hill, the June 20 meeting enabled participants to both share best practices and discuss potential plans for disabilities inclusion.
The goal is that everybody “goes home with ideas and learns new things about inclusion and that they develop relationships so they can talk to people moving forward,” said Ed Frim, a board member of Jewish Residential Services.
In running the 90-minute meeting, Frim prompted participants with questions including, “How have you organized to address disabilities in your synagogue?” “What are some specific successful programs or changes that you have implemented?” and “What could the community provide to help you in your efforts?”
“We can’t do great work in the community if we’re not doing great work in the congregation,” said Mara Kaplan, co-chair of Temple Sinai’s Disabilities Task Force.
To that point, Temple Sinai conducted both a building and programmatic assessment, “and one of the first things we did was take programs out of inaccessible rooms,” she explained.
At Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, “we renovated our entire chapel so that it is more communal and inclusive,” added Steve Hecht, Beth El’s executive director.
After “watching people tripping on the bimah” as they ascended or descended for various honors, construction dropped the platform to create an even area that is “more level and inclusive.” The result is that “we’ve taken away the stumbling blocks so to speak,” said Hecht.
With a similar goal of creating more accessible services, the suburban congregation utilizes “an inclusion Torah” that weighs “only 10 pounds,” explained the executive director. “Our more mature members and b’nai mitzvah can carry it. Our other Torahs are about 19 to 20 pounds.”
At Temple Emanuel of South Hills, prior to delivering their sermons rabbis provide congregants with handouts of the speeches. It is helpful for those who are “hard of hearing,” explained Leslie Hoffman, Temple Emanuel’s executive director.
There are countless ways to amplify inclusive practices, but what is important to note is that they need not cost a fortune, explained Kaplan. “It’s very difficult to change a culture and environment but it’s cheaper than redoing a building.”
Even small tactics can net large rewards, added Hoffman. Perhaps during services a rabbi could say, “Rise if you are able,” or as opposed to purchasing all new prayer books in large font, congregations could invest in magnifying glasses, she suggested.
Within each institution, seeking out expertise from the congregants themselves is extremely beneficial, said Alison Karabin, Jewish Residential Services project manager for young adults in transition. That way “you’re not reinventing the wheel,” she added.
Prior to concluding the meeting, Frim ticked off local and national resources within both the Jewish and general community. Of note, he and others recommended the work of Shelly Christensen, founder and executive director of Inclusion Innovations. Christensen’s From Longing to Belonging: A Practical Guide to Including People with Disabilities in Your Faith Community and Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities, were helpful materials, remarked attendees.
While no date has been set for a follow-up meeting, those present at the June 20 gathering are committed to continuing the dialogue.
“The Jewish community has really turned a corner,” said Kaplan. “We’re creating more warm and welcoming congregations where anyone can find a place for themselves.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.