Celebrate Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month In Your Synagogue


Editor’s Note: Thank you to our friends at the URJ for sharing this wonderful blog!

With the start of February, so too begins Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. Of course, there is nothing uniquely Jewish about disabilities, nor is there a greater need for inclusion in February than in any other month. So why observe Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month this February?

We encourage Reform congregations to observe and participate in this important community-wide initiative because it is Jewish to cherish each and every life and to support every struggle for dignity and justice; it is Jewish to work directly with each person and each family to find out what they need to be able to learn, pray, find friends, feel a sense of belonging, and contribute to the shaping and sustaining of community; it is Jewish to dispel prejudices and misconceptions that contribute to isolation, underemployment, and lack of human rights.

When Reform congregations observe Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month together in February, we join with other Jews across North America to make February a month to rededicate ourselves to creating a truly inclusive Jewish community.

In honor of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, we offer a few suggestions to help congregations adopt further awareness and understanding of disabilities. Please adapt these ideas in ways that fit the needs and culture of your own community – and let us know what your congregation does that might be missing from our list!

  1. Embrace the disabilities advocacy principle of “Nothing about us without us” in all your inclusion efforts.

Invite people with disabilities to be involved and to participate as leaders in every conversation, program, and plan related to disabilities inclusion. Just as we shouldn’t and couldn’t develop efforts to combat racism without the guidance and leadership of people of color, we will be most successful and respectful when we acknowledge the expertise of people with disabilities in combating ableism (discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities) and in developing strategies that actually address the true needs and wishes of people with disabilities.

  1. State your congregational commitment to inclusion.

Visit the URJ Ruderman Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center to discover ways to advance inclusion offered by disabilities experts and congregational leaders. Register to have your synagogue listed as one of the many Reform congregations committed to expanding their inclusion efforts, working up to becoming an Exemplar Congregation, one whose inclusion efforts make their congregations open and welcoming for all people.

You may also wish to contact our Exemplar congregations to ask questions and learn which approaches and principles have made their efforts successful; each of these congregations has provided a contact person who is happy to help and mentor other congregations.

  1. Ask those with disabilities the way they want to be addressed and identified.

Learn about “identity and disability pride” and “people-first” language and explain why you use either or both in synagogue communications, including spoken, printed, and online resources.

Some in the disabilities community prefer people-first language, which reflects that a disability does not define a person – i.e. “a child with autism,” not “an autistic child,” or “a person who stutters” rather than “a stutterer.”

Note, however, that positive identities are often said first, i.e. “a Jewish person,” “a kind person,” and so many people in the disabilities community prefer to identify proudly as “a deaf person” or “an autistic person,” for example to indicate that their disability is a difference but not a negative.

The most important part of being inclusive is getting to know the needs and preferences of individuals with disabilities – and so, on an individual level, it’s best to simply inquire about how people with disabilities wish to be identified.

  1. Ensure that all members, including people with disabilities, can contribute to congregational life in meaningful ways.

Everyone has something to contribute and every person wants to be a valued and needed member of the community. Invite congregants, including those with disabilities, to participate in committees, worship, and volunteer opportunities. Consider people with disabilities for employment in every area of congregational life, and make it possible for people with disabilities to participate in leadership opportunities.

  1. Rethink accessibility in your congregation so that everyone benefits – not just those with disabilities.

Consider the following examples:

  • Your current mezuzot are likely out of reach for adults who are short of stature or who use wheelchairs – and they are also inaccessible to most children. Place low, accessible mezuzot on all congregational doorposts, and host a community explaining how important it is for all to be able to reach the mezuzot.
  • Place a cup dispenser at an accessible level next to water fountains so everyone can get a drink independently.
  • If the bimah is not accessible by ramp, place a table in the front of the sanctuary so Torah reading can take place on a level that permits all to participate.
  • Reserve and let people know there is seating available near exits for those who may need to leave quickly without having to indicate a need for a restroom, a quiet space, or somewhere to take medication. People with ongoing medical conditions, temporary disabilities or in emotional crises will all appreciate this.
  1. Plan a special event that expands your definition of disability.

Ask congregants or guest speakers with disabilities to discuss and demonstrate the ways accommodations make it possible for them to live full lives. Such programs should focus on their achievements and contributions, avoiding simulation-centric programs meant to increase empathy. Some ideas:

  • Look into inviting a deaf keynote speaker to your congregation or featuring a film, live performance, or art show with a deaf-centric theme. Such an event can demonstrate the possibility and importance of having sign language interpreters and other systems that make it possible for the deaf and hard of hearing to participate.
  • Invite a speaker to discuss what it’s like to have a psychiatric condition, which will help to diminish stigma and demonstrate the importance of seeking help. This is an example of pikuach nefesh, the Jewish mandate to save lives, as shame, despair, and lack of treatment for psychiatric conditions contribute to preventable deaths within all communities.

Stay away from programming meant to show people how difficult it would be live with a disability, such as by using blindfolds, tying legs together, reading garbled texts, etc. These programs, with their emphasis on what people with disabilities cannot do, inadvertently create a diminished impression of the capacities possessed by people with disabilities.

Create a task force to look into ways of working with congregational members and community organizations to arrange and fund these important events. Though you may not be able to schedule such an event in February, you can start the planning process this month.

  1. Display clear signage.

All signs in your building should clearly indicate accommodations such as elevators, wheelchair-accessible restrooms, parking spaces and seating, large-print and audible materials, and loop and other assistive technologies for the deaf and hard of hearing.

  1. Publicize your congregation’s commitment to inclusion.

Let people know that your congregation is welcoming and inclusive by sharing news of existing accommodations and programs and by indicating your wish to work with people with disabilities to find ways to make participation possible.

Include such information prominently in your newsletter, website, and application materials. Demonstrate that your congregation lives by these principles in your employment practices, in who is chosen for lay leadership and in the images of people of all ages with visible disabilities on your Facebook page, website, photo displays within the building, and other mentions.

  1. Provide seating at all congregational events.

Make sure chairs and tables are available at your oneg, Kiddush, and other gatherings. This allows for the participation of people who use wheelchairs, people of short stature, and others for whom standing for long periods of time may be difficult. Make space for people using wheelchairs throughout the sanctuary, in meeting rooms, and in classrooms so as not to inadvertently segregate people with disabilities.

  1. Ensure that printed materials are accessible for all congregants.

Make large-print copies of prayerbooks available at all services, and consider making available an enlarged, electronic version on an iPad for individuals for whom the large-print version is not sufficient. Similarly, make available digital versions of all printed materials used in educational, social, and worship programs.

How is your congregation putting into action its commitment to inclusion? Tell us on socila media or in The Tent. Visit the URJ Ruderman Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center for more tips, ideas, resources, and contacts.

February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide. For important resources created by top disability experts, visit the Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center, created by the Union for Reform Judaism in partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation.

Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher, LCSW, serves as Union for Reform Judaism faculty for Sacred Caring Community and is director of the URJ Presidential Initiative for Disabilities Inclusion. In her role as director of the URJ Ruderman Disabilities Inclusion Initiative, she helped to create the online learning site disabilitiesinclusion.org. She has been an adjunct faculty member of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion‘s Interfaith Doctor of Ministry Program in Pastoral Counseling. She writes and consults on disability, mental health, and helping children and adults to navigate the feelings associated with difficult personal and communal events, drawing about Jewish and secular sources. She is the co-author of Resilience of the Soul: Developing Emotional and Spiritual Resilience in Adolescents and Their Families. Ordained in 1999, Rabbi Mencher is also a graduate of the Westchester Center for the Study of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy and of the Hunter College School of Social Work.