“For my house shall be a house of prayer for all people.”(Isaiah 56:5)
Every congregation wants to be seen as welcoming, and some of us put a lot of energy and attention into making sure that all who walk through our synagogue doors are greeted warmly and find their needs met. Nevertheless, it is terribly easy to overlook the diversity of human experience, to forget that everyone’s needs are not the same.
February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month, which comes to remind us of just this truth. Jewish Disability Awareness Month challenges us to adjust our thinking not only about how we welcome others, not only about the importance of accessible architecture in our meeting places and facilities. It also prompts us to consider how we carry ourselves through the world, how we relate to others, and how our assumptions can sometimes make the world a more difficult place for those among our brothers and sisters, our neighbors and loved ones, our friends and the strangers who travel through or settle down in our midst, who live with disability.
Every congregation wishes to be seen as welcoming, and yet it has been, over the years, the complaint that I hear most often when talking with folks who have visited or are searching for a congregation. Under the best of circumstances, it can be intimidating to walk into a new place, to find a seat among strangers, to navigate a new culture. Will anyone greet me? Do I have the right book? Am I sitting in the right place?
Now, add a physical or cognitive disability into the mix. What else contributes toward feeling welcome and included, a part of the community, or not? How easy is it to get in and out of the building? Can I navigate the sanctuary in my wheelchair or walker? What if I can’t hear well enough to follow the service? Or see well enough to read from the siddur (prayerbook)? Are there appropriate restrooms in the building? Will I get funny looks if I need to pace the aisles during silent prayers? Or if I must remain seated when everyone else is standing?
One of the many reasons I feel so proud of this congregation is the way in which Temple Or Hadash makes serious business of welcoming every person who comes through our doors. We can, of course, do more, whether we sit on the board or are ourselves a new member.
Most of us will encounter some form of disability in our lifetime. Either we are born with it, we pass through it after an acute injury or illness, or we age into it. Our tradition commands us to advocate for one another, to “speak up for those who cannot speak” (Proverbs 31). We honor the divine spark in every soul: “Do not look at the container,” we read in Pirkei Avot, “but see what is in it.” And we remember that we are all one community, all bound up with each other’s fate: “Hinei ma tov u’ma na’im shevet achim gam yachad. Behold how good and pleasant it is when all people live together as one”(Psalm 133). What can we do to make this vision come true, to make our congregation, and ultimately our world, a truly welcoming, inclusive place, a house of prayer for all people?
To learn more about Jewish Disability Awareness Month, about what we can do as individuals and in community, please visit https://rac.org/advocacy/issues/issuedr/.
gam zeh ya’avor,