Twice a month, Shira walks into her synagogue with her daughter.
She feels that they should be there. She feels that they could belong there one day.
But she walks in the side entrance, into the school building, not the main sanctuary. And she walks straight into the assigned classroom, without interacting with others.
Once she is in the classroom, she has the most amazing two hours with her family. They experience a wonderful service for families who have kids with disabilities. They sing, pray, hear Torah stories, and read the Torah together.
And then she walks out of the building with her family and goes home, again through the side door.
Shira and her family have a magical time every two weeks for two hours, but synagogue life is more than that. If a synagogue is about creating holy spaces for people to gather and connect, than missing a family like Shira’s pierces a hole in that holiness.
Making our synagogues more accessible to people with disabilities is more than just about creating new programs and new opportunities. It is about more than building a ramp up to the bimah. To create an inclusive synagogue, we have to think beyond programming, physical structure, and personnel, and push ourselves to create cultural and attitudinal change.
We have to think about how the members of our community are now, who are not members and deserve to be, and why those people cannot gain access to it. We must recognize that in order to be a truly holy community, all kinds of people must be equally represented and equally honored as contributing and critically important members.
Up until now, most synagogues that have done something to address the need have solved it by thinking episodically and reactively.
Episodically, in that they create lovely one-time programming. Maybe it is once a month, maybe it’s four times a year, but more often than not the program does not support the participants to move beyond it to reach any other aspects of synagogue life.
And they have been reactive. Most programs have started because a mother, father, grandmother, or friend has advocated for a specific program or the modification of an existing program so that it could support their family member better. The synagogue has waited to get the knock on the door before its leaders have started to reflect on their own ability to reach all members and potential members of their community.
So how can our synagogues be more inclusive of people with disabilities? Here are three important but uncomplicated ideas:
1. Be proactive. Look around your synagogue. Who should be there but is not? What is it about this service/program/event that might not be accessible? Is there a ramp? Is there sign language interpretation? Is the community welcoming and inviting to people of all abilities? Plan for the people who might never come, hoping that one day they might.
2. Think holistically and systemically. How can you make a cultural shift so that you no longer have to work at being inclusive, because you simply are? How can you engage in deep conversations about who is not at your table, to assure that one day everyone can be? This way of thinking should become part of the fabric of the community as a whole.
3. Be thoughtful, deliberate, and consistent. On all levels of institutional life, think about what can be done to assure inclusion of all types of people. Should the front desk guards be trained? Does the person who answers the phone know about available resources? Should inclusive language be required on all emails and flyers?
Ensure that next time Shira and her family go to synagogue, they can walk proudly in the front door, daven with the whole community, join everyone at kiddush, and take part in the family Friday night service and the Hebrew school too. Shira and her family should be celebrated and welcomed for their abilities, and recognized as valuable members of their community.