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Embracing disabilities

Synagogue aims for inclusion

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Temple Beth Torah pulled up the rugs – literally – to install a hearing loop that will make services more accessible to the hearing impaired.

Temple Beth Torah of Upper Nyack has always made an effort to accommodate those with disabilities. Prayer books are available in large print; there is a ramp to the bima, and an elevator in the building.

But now it is taking those efforts one step further, seeking to be the most accessible and inclusive house of worship in Rockland County in an effort to break down more barriers and open its doors to those with special needs.

Most recently, a hearing loop was installed in the sanctuary and social halls of the temple so that those who are hearing impaired can be better connected to services and events through wireless technology.

The initiative called, “Shaareinu: Our Gateway,” was launched at Yom Kippur when Rabbi Brian Beal spoke about the need to be inclusive in his sermon. In appealing to his congregation, Beal emphasized that “serving the needs of people with special challenges is not only the right thing to do; it is essential for TBT and the greater Jewish community.”

Audiologists Jeffrey Shannon and Angela Loavenbruck of Hudson Valley Audiology located in New City, who have patients within the congregation, first introduced the idea of a hearing loop to Beal. As members of the American Academy of Audiologists and the Hearing Loss Association of America, Shannon and Loavenbruck are part of a greater movement called, “Let’s Loop America.”

“Facilities with hearing loops provide the means of reconnecting people, helping them to enjoy life and taking away the stigma of being different,” said Shannon. He feels this is a win-win situation, both for the synagogue and for those with hearing impairments.

So far, Temple Beth Torah is the only synagogue where the technology is available in Rockland. But the doctors hope that by successfully partnering with TBT, they will encourage other congregations to take this on.

The hearing loop works through the installation of a hidden coil around the periphery of a room in an actual loop. Individuals who have hearing aids can directly connect to the source of sound through the use of wireless technology called “T-coils,” which also have the capability of eliminating background noises, poor acoustics, and echoes.

A universal sign indicating that the synagogue has a hearing loop will also be present. It is a blue sign with a “T” and a picture of a human ear, which says “hearing loop installed.” This sign is already being used in buildings and institutions throughout the world.

The doctors have generously donated a significant amount toward the cost of the loop. The remainder is coming from the rabbi’s son, Joshua, who has taken this on as a mitzvah project prior to becoming a bar mitzvah in September.

“It is unfair that people can’t hear; it’s hard for them to understand announcements and speeches,” said Joshua.

The need is indeed clear. Hearing impairment is the number one birth defect in America. Currently 36 million people in the United States suffer from some type of hearing loss. Of those, 30 percent are aging baby boomers more than 65 years old.

Reaching out to members of TBT, friends and family, Joshua has already raised enough funds to finance the remainder of the costs for the loop. Now, he is working on additional fundraising to purchase headsets for those who do not have hearing aids.

Another important force behind the Shaareinu initiative was the volunteerism of TBT congregants who came forward, donating their time, talents and skills in order to ensure that access and inclusion for those with special needs would be a successful endeavor. “We could never have afforded to pay for the professional time they have contributed,” said Beal.

Several members are actively participating in four task forces that will improve inclusion covering areas of education, mental health, technology, and chesed (deeds of loving kindness). They include principals, teachers, psychologists, counselors, social workers, doctors and a host of other professionals.

“We have 40 people involved in these four task forces, most of whom have never been involved before,” said Eva Steen, chair of Shaareinu and former temple president. Using her strengths in community organizing, Steen reached out to those who had talents in the four task force areas. The idea of inclusion and access ignited the interests and passions of many people. “Most inspiring was the response we had gotten from the congregation,” said Steen.

Beal and Steen have provided the leadership in creating and organizing the synagogue’s Shaareinu initiative. As a result of their participation at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in November, they became aware of the issues of physical, cognitive, social and emotional health that can prevent people from accessing and connecting to Jewish community settings. It became clear that all across the country steps were being taken in order to establish access and inclusion in synagogues for those who have special needs. New York, however, seemed to be lagging behind other states in this area.

“Rockland has such need,” stated Beal. He feels that inclusive programs do so much for the collateral good; not only helping those who have special needs, but also empowering and strengthening congregations and other community organizations as well.

Congregations have been grappling with inclusion issues, seeking to accommodate all individuals with special needs. Programs for special needs children such as Keshet, at Beth Am Temple in Pearl River, provide a Hebrew education within a smaller class setting. At Orangetown Jewish Center, a signing interpreter has been available so that all congregants and their family members may participate in celebrations.

The hearing loop is just the beginning of what will be an ongoing effort for Temple Beth Torah to reach out to families in the Jewish community.

“No one should be excluded from participating because of a particular disability,” said Steen. She is hoping that full access and inclusion will become a model for other houses of worship as well.

“Everyone should be welcome to interact, join in and feel comfortable,” she added.

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