With the High Holidays fast approaching, Jewish Residential Services, the Squirrel Hill-based nonprofit that serves adults with intellectual and psychiatric disabilities, has reached out to synagogues in western Pennsylvania and beyond to help create an inclusive environment at one of the most religiously-sensitive times of the year.
Referring to its campaign as a gift, JRS, in an open letter to rabbis and executive directors, provided resources to help synagogues cater to people with disabilities.
Some of these resources include links to the guidelines enacted by three branches of Judaism, such as the United Synagogue Guide for High Holidays Inclusion, UJR Tips to Increase Disabilities Inclusion in Services and YACAD Disability Inclusion Resource Guide for Rabbis, as well as toolkits developed by several other organizations.
“Unfortunately, there is still a lot of stigma about mental health, and we would like to reach more people in the Jewish community that are unaware or need assistance in navigating some of these things,” said Harold Love, JRS executive director.
These efforts are being achieved with guidance from the JRS’s Judaic committee, comprised of JRS staff, rabbis, professionals and lay leaders from area synagogues.
“The focus is, by and large, centered around creating meaningful Judaic activities for people that are in our programs,” said Love.
Historically, people with such disabilities were institutionalized, owing to a lack of services to help families take care of loved ones. Once deinstitutionalization began occurring in the late 1970s into the 1980s people began integrating back into the communities at large.
But that path was, and is, often rocky.
“In the past there was a gap that traditionally people with disabilities weren’t always welcomed; we’ve worked to bridge that gap,” said Alison Karabin, project manager with JRS.
Karabin said that it is important that Jewish people with disabilities should be a valued part of the fabric of the community rather than an add-on. “Disability inclusion is a best practice for all Jewish organizations; it helps them to take a person-centered approach.”
“We recognize that most people have good intentions, but they don’t always know what to do, so we wanted to take away the fear of the unknown,” she added, referring to the letters sent out to the synagogues this High Holiday season.
Unlike some physical disabilities, mental or intellectual disabilities are often invisible. “Mental illness has been more difficult for institutions and communities to deal with; it’s a whole different type of issue,” said Love.
He said that their two-fold goal is to both “help those congregations start to position themselves to be more welcoming to people with disabilities, and we want to encourage people who think that there are barriers, we want to help them overcome those barriers.”
Earlier this year, Beth Shalom formed a committee to study this issue, utilizing the guidelines set forth in the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project, an initiative under the umbrella of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. The project helps support synagogues in creating inclusion strategies.
“We care about making our community warm, welcoming and inclusive,” said committee co-chair, Arlene Shapiro. “We are still evaluating what we have and identifying what we need.”
Rodef Shalom has hosted 12-step programs for many years and is continuing to hold conversations around these issues. “Rodef Shalom, is an inclusive congregation. We welcome and strive to accommodate people from all kinds of backgrounds and with any number of abilities. This includes those who have special physical needs as well as those experiencing mental illness,” said Rabbi Aaron Bisno. In fact, Rodef Shalom will be hosting an upcoming Collaborative for Recovery Dialogue, part of the Allegheny County Coalition for Recovery, which focuses on mental illness and addiction.
Two years ago, Temple Sinai started a Disability Task Force, co-chaired by congregant, Mara Kaplan.
“The important part is that you’re not a full community if everybody is not participating. Therefore, everyone needs to feel comfortable and welcomed at the synagogue for us to be a full spiritual community,” said Kaplan.
Temple Sinai offers monthly musical sensory-friendly services. The participants know that “it’s all right to make noise and [it’s] all right to get up and wander around during the service,” said Kaplan.
They also stream their High Holiday and Shabbat services so that people who may not be able to sit through a full service can watch from either the privacy of their own homes or in a conference room at the synagogue. Magnifying glasses and fidget toys are also available for those who need it.
Karabin is on the task force as well, so the two entities are able to easily share information and ideas. Karabin said that offering training to greeters is key. “If greeters can set an inclusive tone, that is really important,” she said.
Love was quick to applaud the efforts made by area congregations, while acknowledging that there is still work to be done.
“Whether you’re an early adopter on inclusion or whether you’re still on that path, it doesn’t matter, as long as you’re on that path,” he said. pjc
Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.