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Ninety-four percent of the country's synagogues are not accessible to the disabled, according to a survey released Thursday by a religious social action group ahead of a nationwide effort to increase sensitivity to the plight of the disabled.
The poll of 80 synagogues was conducted by Ma'agalei Tzedek, an organization established by religious Zionist youth who want more emphasis put on issues of social justice and not just the Greater Israel settlement ideal.
According to the survey, which was conducted a year ago but is being published now, 94% of synagogues lack at least one of the basics that the disabled need: a ramp to the men's or women's section and accessible bathrooms. Approximately 70% lack both.
The survey did not inquire whether the bima (the raised platform upon which the Torah is read) or the aron kodesh (the ark) are accessible. "I don't even think such a thing exists," Ma'agalei Tzedek chairman Chili Tropper said.
Ramat Gan Chief Rabbi Ya'acov Ariel said Halacha obliges planners of all new synagogues to make places of prayer accessible for the disabled.
"The Torah commands us to love our neighbor like ourselves, the disabled included," he said. By facilitating such accessibility, he said, the community was helping the disabled to perform their commandments.
Ariel said renovating synagogues to make them accessible was a complicated undertaking, but each community "should be sensitive to the need."
According to Rabbi Yehuda Zoldan of the Jerusalem College of Technology, there was a halachic obligation to make all public places accessible to the disabled. This was learned from the biblical command not to place a stumbling block before the blind. "This includes the positive command to remove obstacles that get in some people's way," he added.
Zoldan said the disparity between theory and reality was partly due to the changing status of the disabled. "Today, more than in the past, disabled people are out and about," he said. "There is definitely more consciousness."
Ma'agalei Tzedek, together with the Israel Democracy Institute and Tzohar Rabbis, is planning to focus this Shabbat on the issue of disabled rights. The activities are planned to coincide with the reading this Shabbat - Shabbat Mishpatim - of the Torah portion in Exodus that deals exclusively with the laws and statues befitting a just society.
More than 350 schools have been introduced to an educational program on the issue prepared by the Israel Democracy Institute and special activities are planned for all the major youth groups. In addition, 50,000 pamphlets will be distributed in synagogues nationwide.