5 Synagogue Inclusion How-Tos For The Holidays
09/04/2013 - 08:02
Jaime Bassman and Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer
Clergy and synagogue staff can easily and cheaply do a lot to make services a happy and calm experience for everyone. Fotolia
Clergy and synagogue staff can easily and cheaply do a lot to make services a happy and calm experience for everyone. Fotolia

Ready or not, the High Holy Days are upon us!

Recently, Jewish Learning Venture hosted a webinar on “High Holiday Inclusion” as part of outreach to clergy and lay leadership in the Philadelphia vicinity. We are sharing some tips that we hope your community can utilize, either this year or in the future, to make your synagogue truly a house of worship for all people.

1. Identify Who Is Present -- And Who Isn’t

Who do you expect to be attending High Holiday services? In addition to current members and their extended families, there may be quite a few potential new members coming for the first time.

Once you identify who will be attending, make sure to also give some thought to who is not present,  and consider why that might be the case. Are items such as prayer books and tallit within easy reach of wheelchair users? Are sign language interpretation and prayer books for the visually impaired readily available?  Do children and adults with disabilities  (and their family members) have a way of meaningfully participating in services?         

2. Create a Cohesive Message

Determine who is on the “High Holy Day team” in your synagogue community. This may include everyone from the clergy and the education director, to the person in charge of child care, to the person coordinating the ushers, to the person answering the office phones. It may be helpful to call a meeting with everyone who is involved to share resources, answer questions and brainstorm about inclusion and the holidays.

3. Provide Supports: “If You Build It, They Will Come”

Begin by accessing the physical space. If there are members of your synagogue who have physical disabilities, seek them out as they can provide the most valuable feedback.  Is there plenty of handicapped parking? Are the sanctuary and the bima accessible? Do the bathrooms have grab bars and a turning radius? Is the social hall easy to navigate?  What about the emergency exits?  

As part of all High Holiday communications, include a written statement, “If you require accommodations to participate, please call xxxx." Think proactively: for instance, a synagogue that advertises a sign language interpreted service will be more likely to bring in local Jews that require this support in order to attend services.

4. Reach Out

Connect with parents whose children have behavioral, communication and/or sensory issues. These parents often feel too anxious about their children’s behavior to even consider stepping into the synagogue on the High Holidays.

The following options cost nothing, and they may be helpful for all young children and their families:

Do a quick email survey to ask parents what they might need to make their children (and themselves!) feel comfortable coming to services.

Provide a ‘quiet room’ where parents can retreat with their children when being in services is too intense.

Let parents know that they can bring a therapeutic aide or an outside babysitter into the designated childcare space to stay
with their child.

5. Consider A Sensory Friendly Service

Sometimes, a smaller service  that is created for children with special needs and their families may be the ideal situation. It can be a place where everyone ‘gets it’ and families feel at ease—a feeling that will carry over long after the last shofar blast.

We look forward to providing more tools and strategies to create inclusive communities in the year ahead.

L’shana tova!

Jaime Bassman is an occupational therapist who provides trainings and consultation through Jewish Learning Venture.  She can be reached at jaimotr@yahoo.com.

Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer is the Director of Special Needs Resources at Jewish Learning Venture.  She can be reached at gkaplan-mayer@jewishlearningventure.org.


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I like many of your ideas. It's time for synagogues to be more accessible and inclusive. I would, however, like to see your language evolve to Person First and more acceptable language. For example, in point number 1 you say "the visually impaired". Person First language is people who are blind or visually impaired. It is not a homogeneous group. In point 3 you speak of "handicapped parking". The more correct and acceptable term in accessible parking. To many people with disabilities the word handicapped is a pejorative and antiquated unless you are talking about golf.

In point 2 you suggest people who answer the phones should understand accessibility so they can answer questions. I would also suggest information about inclusion and accessibility be part of the website. In point 3 you also say a contact person's phone number should be publicized so people who have questions about accessibility and inclusion can call. Again I would put information on the website and I would also list an email contact so people who are speech impaired or who have hearing loss can communicate more easily. Yes, relay is an option, but many people who are not culturally Deaf prefer email or texting.

Thank you for promoting synagogue inclusion. L'shana Tovah.