If Your Synagogue Doesn’t Have Members with Disabilities, You May Be Doing Something Wrong

In 2009, February was designated as Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM). The idea behind this title is to raise awareness and educate Jews about the importance of everyone in the community feeling included, no matter their physical or mental abilities. I can attest to the importance of this as I have spent my professional career thus far as an advocate for people with disabilities. In addition, I have cerebral palsy (CP), a condition that severely affects my body movement and muscle coordination.

Aaron Kaufman

According to a study by RespectAbilityUSA and JerusalemU.org conducted in 2013, most American Jews with disabilities feel excluded from their own communities. I was not at all surprised to read this result. Growing up in the 90s, my mobility issues kept me from experiencing my Jewish community in full. I was unable to attend Jewish schools because of their inability to meet my needs. I could not celebrate my bar mitzvah from my synagogue’s bimah, as it was not physically accessible to me.

I graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in American Studies. When I tell this to some people, “their jaws drop”, since many people do not associate people with CP as being college-bound, let alone being able to flourish. Like many of my peers I participated in a Birthright Israel trip. Birthright is a free ten-day heritage trip to Israel for young adults of Jewish heritage supported by a not-for-profit educational organization,Taglit-Birthright Israel. My trip was designed especially for people with physical disabilities. As a person with a disability, you often feel alone and isolated and like you are the only one going through something. The trip was so special because I met people just like me who are going through the same challenges and have very similar fears and anxieties.

While I have seen positive changes over time, I know from my work, and my involvement in the Jewish community, that more can be done. It should be mandatory that every Jew who desires it, can receive access to a Jewish education, participate in worship, rituals and traditions and feel integrated into their own community without exception. If our places of worship are not sensitive to our needs, even the most basic things can present a challenge — from opening doors, to getting up steps, to washing your hands in the bathroom. I am fortunate to work at the Jewish Federations of North America where they do everything that they can to meet my needs and celebrate my strengths.

As I and others with disabilities share their stories, we can spark the conversations that inspire culture change. I am proud to be a member of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s Disability Inclusion Committee. This committee has recently created an online Inclusion Planning tool designed specifically to spark conversations and encourage dialogue between those with and without disabilities.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s new self-evaluative Inclusion Tool asks users questions around six subjects including Physical Accessibility, Communication, Worship and Ritual, Education, Volunteer and Employment, and Social, Recreation and Leisure. Once the questions are answered within each section, the tool produces a report with suggestions for next steps and links to resources that will help improve the organization’s inclusion. As a member of my synagogue’s young professionals group, I was sometimes invited to events at locations that are not accessible. Unless event organizers have a disability or are close to someone who does, it is often “out of sight, out of mind.” The inclusion tool brings awareness to these types of concerns. Once I explained the situation to organizers, the group has only held events in accessible locations.

So much of inclusiveness is awareness. Just being mindful of other’s abilities can be tremendously helpful. If you are wondering whether or not your place of worship is welcoming to everyone, one simple way of finding out is to look around. If you are surrounded by people with a diverse array of abilities, than you are likely on the right path (although you can always do more to increase access). However, if there is a lack of diversity around you, it is likely that steps need to be taken to meet those needs.

Like to take the first step toward making your place of worship more inclusive, visit The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s Disability Inclusion Planning Tool page.