by Jessica Solodar
Shabbat services provide an opportunity to reaffirm and strengthen connections with Judaism, the shul, and friends. Sharing the experience as a family strengthens family connections. Because all families should feel welcome and able to join in, we’ve been working to anticipate and eliminate barriers to participation faced by families affected by disability. Clergy, staff, and the B’Tselem Inclusion Committee, chaired by Jerry Jacobs, have begun reaching out to families who have not felt able to participate before.
We’ve launched Shabbat events for families with special needs. Families with children in the Gateways: Access to Jewish Education special education programs have enjoyed two Shabbat evenings at the synagogue that included Shabbat dinner and the Shabbat Alive! service. The music volume in the service was lowered to accommodate sensory issues. Cara Coller, who came with her family, described the experience this way:
For the first time since we moved here Isabella felt and continues to feel included in the Shabbat services and all the wonderful events that are being held. At her first sensory – friendly Shabbat, she sang with the clergy and danced in my husband’s arms while our entire family smiled…and shed tears of joy! What an incredible feeling to be able to be there all together!
At Shabbat morning services, ushers are ready to help with special needs, including providing largeprint prayer books, assistive listening devices, and fidget toys. Classroom 23 is open for children and their parents to take a break from services if needed. A full list of accommodations during services in the sanctuary is on a printed card in the pews and on the B’Tselem Inclusion Committee page of the Temple Emanuel website.
To ease access to and within the building, we now have automatic door openers inside and outside the Ward St. and Ashford Rd. entrances, improved signage and markings for handicap parking, and bright stripes that increase visibility of steps on the staircase near the main office. Restrooms have been modified for wheelchair access to sinks, soap and paper towels. At Kiddush, we now offer high chairs and gluten-free food.
When more families can join in on Shabbat and other occasions, we are enriched as a community. The significance of inclusion in Jewish life was the theme of David Fischer’s September bar mitzvah dvar Torah. He related community-wide inclusion to Moses and the covenant ceremony.
Moses says to the people,“You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God—your tribal heads, your elders, and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer—to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God.” Moses makes a big deal about including everyone in this ritual. He knows that God is making a covenant with the whole Jewish people, and for that to work, the whole Jewish community needs to be there.
What’s true for Moses and the people of Israel is also true for us. The relationship we have with God depends on us including everyone and letting people know that they’re important. In order for our communities to thrive, everyone has to feel included and know that they have a role.
Efforts have begun to address barriers for people with hidden disabilities such as learning disabilities and mental health challenges. We will continue to reach out to more families. For more information on the inclusion initiative, contact Jerry Jacobs.