The Days of Awe Belong to All
The High Holidays are a time of year for reflection: about how we have been over the course of the past year, how we are in the moment, and how we wish to be in the future. It is a time when people of the Jewish faith gather together in unity to praise God, to pray to God, and to hope for blessings for the year to come.
But that unity does not necessarily include everyone. People with disabilities often feel excluded and not a part of that achdut that is often felt by the rest of the congregation during the Yamim Noraim. And it feels wrong in the face of what the Days of Awe stand for. How do we change that? How do we broaden our synagogue participation to include as many people as we can?
Openness is key to inclusion. Pittsburgh is a great city but often we get mired in the idea of
“We have always done it this way and it’s always worked, why change it?” about many things in our society. But without the willingness to even consider change, change won’t happen.
So we start with being willing to listen. Years ago, the USCJ developed a handbook for professional and lay leaders on the topic of inclusion during this time of year. The ideas and opportunities in this handbook make sense and should not “scare” anyone who is afraid of change (https://uscj.org/assets/resources/Hig-Holiday-Inclusion-Packet.pdf).
Among some of the suggestions:
-providing large print prayer books and information sheets like the synagogue bulletin.
-announce page numbers and which book is currently being used.
-making sure sound systems work correctly and that lighting is adequate to see.
-training ushers to use People First language, addressing the congregant themselves and not their caregiver, and being respectful and patient.
-assign volunteers, such as members of your youth groups, to assist with congregants who have developmental/learning disabilities in synagogue prayer.
-provide a quiet room with an intercom so that anyone who needs to leave the main sanctuary, for whatever reason, can go and still hear the service.
Another excellent resource for ideas is the Disability Inclusion Learning Center. This short video offers some approaches to help all people feel welcome and included.
Congregations may ask how can we know what people need? The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, on mailings for all programs, writes the following statement: The full inclusion of people of all abilities is a core value of the Pittsburgh Jewish Community. Please discuss disability-related accommodations with the contact person for this event. Every synagogue can include that language in their High Holidays mailings. When you send out the seat request form or the schedule of times, give people the opportunity and a contact name to let people know what they need. When you provide a real person as the contact, people feel that this is a priority – it is not just another email to the shul office. There is an assigned person to help ME. While not every need can be accommodated on short notice, leaders can take note of it as something that should be addressed in the future.
Inclusion can make the synagogue experience better for everyone without taking away from any one else’s experience. We can all benefit from respect, patience, new ideas, and warm loving environments. Let us start this new year with the attitude of embracing all people with openness.
Shana Tova U’Tekatevu.