Within any synagogue community it is common to find many sub-communities. Throughout the year you are likely to find the entire community gathered together for any number of reasons – holidays, celebrations, or perhaps a great loss within the community. However, it is equally as common to find the many sub-communities within a synagogue meeting alone for such things as a sisterhood game night, a men’s club guest speaker, a senior youth group outing, an adult education class, and so on. Jewish communities have fallen into a pattern of programming that makes each group happy, but this pattern has created a culture of exclusion, rather than inclusion. Quite often, rather than looking at what is already happening within the larger community through an inclusive lens, communities plan more programs designed specifically for people with disabilities. And while there may be good arguments for having separate programs for each group within a synagogue, there is a much greater argument for ensuring that what already exists within the community is fully inclusive.
A critical theme woven throughout the Torah is the importance of treating people correctly. It is not coincidence that Leviticus 19:14, the verse that commands us to not curse the deaf nor place a stumbling block before the blind, is sandwiched in between verses that teach us about treating people ethically and correctly. Why this placement and why this particular teaching as a part of the holiness code? It is there to remind us that everyone is holy; everyone is b’tzelem elohim (created in God’s image), everyone deserves to be treated equally and justly, and everyone deserves a chance to belong.
So why then, if the Torah clearly commands us to treat everyone justly, are our communities yet to be truly complete? (After all, our communities cannot be complete without the participation of those who want to belong.) People participate in synagogue and communal life because they want to be a part of a something. They want to send their children to religious school, they want to participate in adult education and they want to have a spiritual experience. And more often than not, they want a communal experience, not a separate experience. As a spiritual leader, I often concern myself with what more I can do to bring people into the community and what more I can do to make sure that the community is inclusive. Rather than planning separate programming for people with disabilities, I suggest that you look at what your community is already planning through an inclusive lens and ask, “What can we do to make this more inclusive?”
- Could you alter the language used in worship by asking the congregation to prepare for moments rather than to rise?
- Could you alter the language of liturgy to be more inclusive?
- Could you rearrange and adjust seating to accommodate those in wheelchairs or those with vision or hearing disabilities?
- Could you add a sign language interpreter or large print prayer books?
- Could you have fidget toys available at the doors to your sanctuary?
- Could you train your ushers and lay leaders to know what to say when someone with a disability comes into the community?
- Are all of the mezuzzot in one place or are some lower to accommodate those with physical disabilities?
- Is there appropriate signage to guide guests towards bathrooms, accessible or gender-neutral?
- Could you rethink rituals so that they are fully inclusive, such as touching the shofar to feel the vibrations if one is unable to hear the sound?
- Do you have on-site specialists to support your religious school?
- Could you collaborate with other communities, schools or organizations to provide social and communal opportunities?
- Could you employ someone with a disability?
- Does your community marketing let the outside world know that you are an inclusive environment?
February may be Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month, but it is not the only time to be thinking about inclusion. During JDAIM, bring in great speakers, do workshops with your teachers and students, participate in JDAIM Reads; but all year round consider the many ways in which we can make our communities more inclusive so that everyone who wants to be a part of the community can. Your entire community will benefit.
Cantor Faryn Kates Rudnick has served as cantor of Temple Beth-El in Northbrook, IL, since her ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music in 2013. Cantor Rudnick is currently the President of the Reform Cantors of Chicago and represents the American Conference of Cantors on the Jewish Disabilities Network. In the fall of 2015 Cantor Rudnick received Federation’s Samuel A. Goldsmith Young Professional Award for her work with inclusion. Cantor Rudnick’s senior thesis at HUC-JIR was titled “Making Judaism Inclusive: An Exploration of Judaism and Hearing Disabilities.”