Since March of 2015, six New York area synagogues have been focused on tangibly weaving the inclusion of people with disabilities in the fabric of their communities. The UJA-Federation of New York, with funding from the Leo Oppenheimer & Flora Oppenheimer Haas Foundation, piloted The Synagogue Inclusion Project, a groundbreaking 18-month pilot program to create a replicable, sustainable approach to integrating members of our community with disabilities. The pilot synagogue cohort included synagogues large and small, Conservative and Reform, urban and suburban. What bound them together was a stated desire to be inclusive of people with disabilities, but an underlying doubt that they were having the desired impact.

The 18-month process utilized physical and attitudinal evaluations, congregational surveys, “voice-of-the-customer” focus groups, website evaluations, field trips, educator training programs, conferences, and personalized coaching for clergy, staff and lay leadership. These synagogues’ efforts at Park Avenue Synagogue, Temple Beth Emeth v’Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek, Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale, Park Slope Jewish Center, Union Temple of Brooklyn, and Westchester Reform Temple. The efforts were supported by the nonprofit disability group RespectAbility, which I lead. Our team, which included Shelley R. Cohen, Meagan Buren and MATAN, was thrilled with the progress.

Rabbi Savenor places mezzuzah in area that is accessible to all

Rabbi Savenor places mezzuzah in area where wheelchair users, people of short stature and children can reach itacted as an implementer of the project. Each congregation learned the important processes and infrastructures that need to be in place to be a truly welcoming, inclusive house of worship.

Over the following weeks, each of the participating synagogues will reflect on the changes brought about by their participation in The Synagogue Inclusion Project. It is being shared here for two reasons. First, in the hopes that it will encourage other synagogues to engage in their own journey towards inclusion, respect and dignity for people with disabilities. Secondly, so Jews with disabilities who have not yet found a congregational home will know some of the congregations in the New York area who would love for them to be involved.

We asked Rabbi Charles Savenor, of Park Avenue Synagogue to share his reflections on the process.

1. Why did your synagogue want to be involved in an inclusion initiative?

Park Avenue Synagogue is deeply committed to creating a spiritual home for our community that is open to everyone, and where everyone can be accepted and embraced for who they are. Our motivation for participating in this initiative was rooted in our belief that by engendering a culture of inclusion that values everyone as being “created in the image of God,” we will affect all learners and the entire community in a positive way. We were excited by the program’s coaching and the peer learning components. We hope to take our current efforts and enhance them, and to learn best practice from others.

2. What were some of the obstacles in your congregation that you wanted to overcome?

We needed to create an open, honest dialogue about inclusion and challenges of many types facing our members. For some this was a difficult conversation because it meant putting up a mirror to the entire community and asking how well we are dealing with these issues and individual needs. For others, the conversation launched by Rabbi Cosgrove’s high holiday sermon last year brought with it hope for what we could become. The response was tremendous.

3. Where did you start in the inclusion process?

Getting buy-in from the community was essential to start.

4. What proved to be the most important part of the process for you?

We have spent time on focusing our efforts. We recognized that there is lots to do to create change and that this type of culture change takes time. Thankfully we have a committed core of clergy, lay and professional leaders who knew this was the moment to take a giant step forward. By defining our objectives and defining inclusion, we have helped create a roadmap for success in specific areas. Thankfully, we have a long-term plan, so other areas will be addressed as we progress with our efforts.

5. What is different at your congregation as a result of this inclusion effort?

What is different? Wow, great question. There is a now an open dialogue about challenges of all types and the meaning of inclusion, and, most importantly, members are coming forward with their own stories. This is an issue to address; our efforts are about working with, help and embracing members of the community.

6. What surprises did you encounter, if any?

Over the past year Park Avenue Synagogue began an inclusion initiative focused on engaging members with physical, neurological and developmental challenges. Our goal has been to raise awareness and sensitivity as to how we can welcome and value all individuals as equals in our community.

As part of Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month, we continued our efforts to hang inclusion Mezuzot. In addition to Mezuzot at “regular” height, we put up a second mezuzah halfway up the doorpost that will be accessible to those in wheelchairs and young children.

We invited the Park Avenue Synagogue community to several Mezuzah hangings this year, first during Hanukkah and then during JDAIM. The mezuzot are now outside the main door, the sanctuary, the Appleman Chapel and library.

This initiative of our Inclusion Committee will help our community actualize the words of the prophet Isaiah: “For My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.”

7. What are you most proud of after completing this inclusion program?

From the moment someone walks in the door and sees two Mezuzot to new language being used on the bima, there is a new feeling in the entire community. The amount of enthusiasm for this initiative has generated momentum for more, deeper change in the future.

8. How do you measure your success in this program?
We will use surveys and ongoing meetings to keep the conversation alive.

9. What is one thing you will hold on to that you’ve learned?
The sense that together we can create a house of God where all are welcome and feel it, too.