I was talking to my mother on the phone when she told me about one of her committee projects. At her congregation in Virginia, there’s an outdoor space, in the woods. It’s used as a learning environment and sanctuary, with play space, too.
While it may be a charming and rustic foray into nature, it’s also something else. It’s inaccessible to those with disabilities. My mom described how a group home brought some of its residents to an outdoor service, only to discover that, in fact, the residents couldn’t attend, because they use wheelchairs. The trails, filled with rocks and tree roots, are too difficult for those wheelchairs to navigate.
My mom is on the “inclusion committee” at her synagogue. In part, she joined because she cares about everybody at her congregation. She wants to practise “audacious hospitality” and “radical inclusion.” The other part is more personal. My nephew uses a wheelchair. Of course, she wants to help him have a full and meaningful Jewish experience.
These bumpy trails are a physical barrier to inclusion. Our Jewish communities are full of physical barriers. These can be things like having only one staircase as an access point into a building – and no ramp. It can mean having no accessible bathroom, or no place for a mom to breastfeed. It could be lacking a way to invite a person in a wheelchair onto the pulpit, because there’s no ramp, or even no handrail for those who might not be stable on their feet.
Physical barriers aren’t just stairs, of course. What about large-print prayer books or documents that work with text-to-speech software for those who have visual impairments? What about an amplification system, sign-language interpreter or closed captioning for those with an audio disability?
Even beyond this, there are those whose differing abilities aren’t visible. Is there a quiet room available and unlocked for those who have sensory challenges? Many might need a break from loud music at a bar mitzvah or during a raucous Simchat Torah celebration. Is there a way that those who have mental health challenges or intellectual disabilities can be offered support if they need it while at a synagogue event?
February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, or JDAIM. If this were a committee meeting, this is when, inevitably, someone would speak out. “Whoa,” this person might say. “We’re just a small congregation with limited funds. We simply can’t do all this. We can’t be all things for all people.”
This is the second barrier to break down. It’s an attitudinal barrier. When someone’s attitude gets in the way of helping practise radical inclusion, it stops us from meeting every Jewish person’s needs in the community. This attitude adjustment is necessary when, for example:
- a baby starts to fuss and a parent works to quiet the baby and feed him,
- a nonverbal person makes noises during services,
- a person needs to stand or sit during services because of pain or disability when everyone else is doing the opposite,
- a person who cannot hear turns to her spouse to ask, “What page are we on?” in that loud voice.
The list could be a mile long. I’ve seen somebody cast a fish-eye at every one of these people. Given how many of us struggle with disabilities, well, let’s just say it’s high time for a change in attitude.
To the person who says, “We’re a small congregation, we can’t do all this,” be ready to stand up and say, “Did you ever wonder why it’s such a small shul? This is why. This attitude. This inability to try and include everybody and to work to meet their needs.”
It doesn’t cost a lot to build a portable ramp for the bima (pulpit). Sometimes, funds can be raised in creative ways to fix physical barriers. What’s harder? Working to change our conscious and unconscious attitudes about disability and inclusion.
Disability will affect all of us or our loved ones at some point in our lives. Please, don’t wait until you break your leg to acknowledge this. It’s really important to bring JDAIM up, but it shouldn’t be a once-a-year discussion.
In the portion Yitro, which we read in synagogues at the beginning of February this year, G-d speaks to Moses and to all the people at once. They all hear the Ten Commandments together in Exodus 20:1-14. Rabbi Ana Bonnheim’s commentary on this portion uses the phrase “radical inclusion.” Moses prepares the people to hear from the Almighty, and they all receive this revelation together – each in his or her own way. Rabbi Bonnheim reminds us that inclusivity, this frequent repetition of “ha-am”, “the people,” is essential to Jewish tradition.
On Shavuot, when we gather again to hear the Ten Commandments, everyone is supposed to be there. If we want a Jewish gathering where everyone physically can be there, it’s time to start an inclusion committee, if your community doesn’t have one. If you already have that committee, remember the public relations campaign that must accompany any initiatives, so that attitudinal barriers change as well as physical ones. The truth is that, even if everyone can physically be present, if your community projects a bad attitude, those with disabilities won’t want to be there.
As for me, I received a “save the date” card for my nephew’s bar mitzvah recently. I cannot wait to see him, using his assistive speaking device, leading the service. Of course, there’s a closed border and a pandemic in the way, too, but their congregation works so hard to include everyone that I know that, in the worst-case scenario, I’ll be there virtually, through livestreaming. Jewish celebrations, like every other kind of Jewish gathering, are for all of us. That’s why inclusion matters.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.