Accessibility Shabbat

Can synagogues meet spiritual and communal needs of people with disabilities?

Dena Gordon with her grandson (photo credit: DENA GORDON)
Dena Gordon with her grandson
(photo credit: DENA GORDON)
Rachel Furman Lewkowicz’s severe deafness requires her to sit where she can read the lips of the cantor, not a simple mission in an Orthodox synagogue with a mehitza separating men and women. When someone insists that Lewkowicz change seats, she not only feels unwelcome but is left completely unable to participate.
Every person with a disability has needs that are not readily apparent to others. Miriam (last name withheld) and her daughter Chaya Mushka, a legally blind 14-yearold with Asperger’s syndrome, still haven’t found a compatible synagogue.
“She’s gotten to the point where she just won’t go to shul,” says Miryam, who lives in the Chabad enclave of Crown Heights in Brooklyn. “I can’t tell you how sad this makes me. Every small shul has a yenta who asks who we are and what we are doing there. My daughter hates crowds and attention, and she can’t pass for ‘normal.’ She needs a large-print siddur, but we can’t carry one on the Sabbath as there is no eruv.”
The Orthodox rabbinical organization Tzohar hopes to raise awareness about the plight of people with disabilities like Lewkowicz’s and Chaya Mushka’s through its second annual “Shabbat Negishut” (accessibility Shabbat) held last week to coincide with International Disability Day on December 3. Rabbi Yuval Cherlo, head of the Yeshivat Amit Orot Shaul and head of Tzohar’s ethics committee, explains that a theme repeated in the books of the Prophets emphasized how the Temple could not function without societal infrastructure of justice and morality.
“Religious institutions need to act with righteousness,” Cherlo told In Jerusalem, “by providing access to injured veterans, mothers with strollers and people with all kinds of disabilities.”
Tzohar’s video for promoting the Shabbat featured a blind man talking about leading prayers. Last year’s video, which focused on the hearing-impaired, illustrated the sign-language version of the Shema prayer.
“We have turned to our rabbis to see what their communities can do,” continues Cherlo.
“They don’t have the resources for major renovations, but they can provide better lighting and large-print siddurim. We want to raise the question, a moral and spiritual one. The synagogues then need to consult the experts, like the organization Access Israel, for practical solutions.”
“Most synagogues are inaccessible in so many ways,” says Jerusalem resident Dena Gordon, who became paralyzed after contracting polio as a child.
“They try, they have a ramp leading to the women’s sections. But because space is at a premium, it’s hard to fit in a wheelchair. The handicapped bathroom o f t e n becomes a storage space for cleaning crews. And if a space is only available some of the time, it’s not really accessible.”
Gordon urges synagogues to invite those with disabilities to be involved with planning from the beginning.
“Architects and engineers can miss little things,” she explains, “like a single step that may as well be a full staircase for me. In the Hadar Mall, the handicapped bathroom has a shelf for me to put my things. Most bathrooms have a hook that is too high for me to reach. Those little things make a big difference.”
Adina, whose father recently became disabled, agrees.
“My father davened [prayed] in the main shul of a Jerusalem synagogue for over 20 years,” says Adina. “But now he davens in the small downstairs minyan. Although there is an elevator to the main sanctuary, his completely standard wheelchair doesn’t fit through the door. I’m sure it’s a question of money, as widening the door would require broader structural changes.”
One exception is Jerusalem’s modern Orthodox Kehilat Yedidya. According to its mission statement, “the synagogue should be open and accessible to all.” Dina Weiner, co-president, explained that the synagogue is fully accessible to wheelchairs, offers prayerbooks for the visually impaired, and boasts a halachically acceptable microphone system to transmit the service directly to hearing aids even on Shabbat.
People with hearing or vision impairment face a different set of challenges than those in wheelchairs. Penina Margo, who has difficulty with both hearing and vision, enjoyed attending a small synagogue in Ariel.
“I could always find a nice person to sit with who would point out the place,” recalls Margo. “But if the rabbi speaks too fast, or covers his lips, I can’t follow. If the curtains to the women’s section are closed, I can’t see what the men are doing. Some synagogues have poor acoustics or an echo.” She has since moved, but finds the noise of children in the new synagogue to be too distracting.
“I’m not able to screen out background noise,” Margo explains.
Lewkowicz, who has been profoundly deaf all her life, echoes Margo’s concerns.
“Where I grew up, in Kingston, New York, the women sat on either side of the men separated by a low mehitza. Their seats were raised, and the view of the cantor was unobstructed. I need not only to see the lips of the cantor, I need to be in proximity as well. In Israel the women are often shunted off to the side.”
Some parents have found synagogues that are accepting of children with developmental disabilities.
“Our shul is rather small, with many kids with disabilities,” says Jonathan Degani of Petah Tikva, father to a six-year-old with autism.
“No one minds that my son sometimes blurts things out, and people treat him like they do the other kids. We used to go to a larger, more formal shul, but my son stood out as weird. Also, the other parents knew each other because their kids go to the same school, but my son is in special education. That’s another reason why special-needs parents feel left out of their communities.”
“My daughter, eight and a half, felt connected to shul when she went with my husband,” says Hadassah Rosenthal, a mother of three, also from Petah Tikva. Two of her children are on the autism spectrum.
“But I felt oppressed and disconnected in the women’s section.
Then we found a synagogue where the women sit in a balcony. I can see all three of my children and they can see me, which makes them feel safer. My daughter doesn’t communicate well and sings to herself, but I have found people that don’t mind sitting next to her.
Other families with autistic children also attend, and there is open space nearby where she can play when she needs a break.”
Even Miriam has found a place that accepts her daughter.
“The Friendship Circle in Brooklyn organizes events on holidays for disabled children, and there Chaya can just be herself,” says Miriam.
“On Simhat Torah they rented an accessible hall. It’s loud, every kid can let their freak flag fly and it’s one of the most joyous events you can imagine. There are volunteers to help bring out the kids who are shy and fathers picking up kids to dance with. Nobody stares at Moishy, who takes longer to dance because he’s got a prosthetic leg.”
Sheryl Grossman, a social worker and disabilities advocate, has Bloom’s Syndrome, an extremely rare genetic disorder. The rabbi of the local Reform synagogue south of Chicago told her parents that he would teach her for her bat mitzva only “next year,” when he conveniently went on sabbatical. Grossman describes herself as “43 inches short.” The disease makes her prone to infections and a number of cancers.
After her family left the synagogue, Grossman drifted Jewishly until college, when she landed on the doorstep of a modern Orthodox synagogue.
“Instead of ‘Ew, why are you here?’” she recalls, “the response was, ‘Wow, how did you find us, welcome!’ That positive greeting was what made me an Orthodox, shul-going Jew.”
Sharon Shapiro-Lacks, who has cerebral palsy, founded Yad HaChazakah, the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, in New York 11 years ago. Led and maintained by people with disabilities, the center works to ensure full participation in Jewish life.
“I prefer the word participation over inclusion,” explains Shapiro- Lacks.
“Inclusion implies including the less powerful. But participation implies that everyone is equal. It’s saying, ‘We need you, we are not just including you out of goodwill.’” But Shapiro-Lacks still faced challenges within her Brooklyn synagogue.
Her synagogue had to move to a facility only accessible by a large staircase. The synagogue considered purchasing an expensive wheelchair lift and importing a “gramma” device from Israel so the lift could be used on the Sabbath. Despite the $11,000 total price, and possible liability issues, the device is now operational.
However, Shapiro-Lacks has reservations. “When the company asked for help marketing the device to Jewish institutions, I refused,” regrets Shapiro-Lacks. “I can’t operate it without help, and it can’t accommodate my motorized wheelchair.”
She intends for the synagogue’s next location to be fully accessible for independent wheelchair users.
“What’s important to think about is that we are all people, created betzelem elokim [in the image of God],” says Grossman.
“We, people with disabilities, are not charity cases. It’s about being asked to be a havruta study partner, invited for a meal, or to teach the neighbor’s child violin. The synagogue is a focal point for the community, physically, emotionally and spiritually.”
“If we exclude at shul, we exclude from the community. Disability inclusion is about a mind-set. If we make it a priority, it will get done, just as we find the money for a mikve or Torah scroll. If people truly believe that disabled folks are equal, then it should be no harder than funding other projects.”