Eliminating the participation gap

Eliminating the participation gap

Closter shul steps closer to the disabled

Temple Emanu-El of Closter has registered with the National Organization on Disability (NOD), which tries to expand the contribution of America’s 54 million disabled people by helping them participate in all of life.

Disability "affects a quarter of the people in the country in some manner," said the congregation’s’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Geoffrey Haber, in an interview. The disabled are "the largest minority group in the U.S., and a largely unrecognized minority. We used to shush these things."

People are still not totally comfortable around the disabled, he said. "We often stare or gawk or ignore them."

As long as the Jewish community had to concentrate on "survival," whether of Israel or Ethiopian Jewry, for example, "quality-of-life" issues like accessibility for the disabled "had to take a back seat," said Haber, but now the community can refocus. Also, with intermarriage and assimilation rates having become more "dangerous," "every Jew becomes important in the perpetuation of our community."

As part of its mission, NOD identifies gaps, the difference in the level of participation between people with and without disabilities. Participation in religious life is a key gap it has pointed out.

The Jewish community is "behind the rest of the community," especially the Protestants, in making its facilities accessible, Haber said. Many U.S. synagogues were built in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, when accessibility was not taken into consideration, resulting in "some real obstacles" that are expensive to fix.

NOD’s religion and disability program is an interfaith effort urging national faith groups, local congregations, and seminaries to identify and remove barriers of architecture, communications, and attitudes. At Emanu-El, entries are on ground level and an elevator allows access to the upper floor of the religious school and the lower level youth facilities. Pews include cutaways to enable wheelchair placement and ramps enable wheelchair access to the low-profile pulpit area.

The shul also offers large-print prayer books for the visually impaired and hearing-assisted devices for the hearing impaired, and transliteration booklets are available for those who are unable to read Hebrew. The temple can also provide Braille prayer books and Bibles upon request.

Since the fall, Haber has been conducting a faith exploration support group for 10 couples whose children have autism. One of his three children is autistic; he said he felt a need as both a rabbi and a parent to help people with their struggles with God and religion as they learn to live with a "devastating lifelong" situation.

The congregation has other ways to welcome those with learning and developmental delays. It hosts residents of the Berrie Group Home in Englewood each Shabbat and a number of members bring their children with disabilities to Temple on a regular basis.

Haber said the synagogue chose to affiliate with NOD in part because it has a national profile that will allow the temple to publicize its accessibility. The organization also hosts a series of interfaith "That All May Enter" conferences; Haber, who is working on a D.Min. in pastoral counseling, presented a paper at the event three years ago in Ridgewood, but will not be at the Princeton conference planned for April 18-19.

"I hope our community sets an example for others," said Haber, adding that he would be happy to make time to explain to other congregations how they can become more accessible and welcoming to people with disabilities.

The synagogue’s phone number is (’01) 750-9997.

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