We recently finished reading the story of the Exodus from Egypt, in which God is inspired to redeem the Israelites after 400 years of slavery because they all cry out together. For Rabbi Ben Spratt, at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan, this collective outcry calls to mind the awakening in the Jewish community in recent years to the need for greater inclusion of people with disabilities. 

Rabbi Spratt lighting the Hannukah candles with children at an inclusion service at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Rodeph

Rabbi Spratt lighting the Hannukah candles with children at an inclusion service at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Rodeph Sholom

To mark the celebration of February as Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month (JDAM), UJA-Federation’s Caring Commission presented the Synagogue Inclusion Award to Rodeph Sholom and seven other congregations for their work on creating inclusive atmospheres and programming for people with disabilities.

“Having a month with a specific focus on disabilities awareness is a reminder to us,” says Spratt. Over the years, as his congregation has become more attuned to the needs of people with disabilities, it realized “we had families we’d been with through highs and lows in their life, and we had no idea that they were a family with special needs. We’re recognizing that whether we meant to or not, we had our eyes shut.”

Knocking On A Lot of Doors

Rina Pianko has firsthand experience of the unpreparedness of some Jewish organizations to serve someone with disabilities. “My children had every opportunity to be in the Jewish community as they were growing up,” Pianko says of her two older sons. But when her youngest son, Gideon, who is on the autism spectrum, reached the age of attending camp, school, and synagogue, “it wasn’t the same, and we sort of had to knock on a lot of doors to bring him into the community.”

Though Pianko’s family isn’t part of the Rodeph Sholom community, Gideon has become active in the inclusion services that the congregation holds on Shabbat and various holidays. Pianko is active herself on UJA-Federation’s autism committee, which created and allocated the awards, and she notes that though there is still room for improvement, the Jewish community has come a long way towards inclusion since she was searching for a school for Gideon. “There were 20 synagogues who applied for this, which is pretty incredible, and they all were touting their special needs programs,” she says.

Though Rodeph Sholom received the first place award, all of the eight awardees were recognized for their inclusive programming. Here are some quick snapshots of the types of accommodations the different congregations made for people with disabilities:

  • Congregation Rodeph Sholom (Manhattan) – In addition to their Steinman Special Education Center, which has offered educational programs and bnei mitzvah training since 1998, they now offer Shabbat and holiday services in a disability-friendly environment. Synagogue entrances and bimah access are handicapped accessible and a sign language interpreter and assisted listening devices are made available to congregants.
  • Westchester Reform Temple – Works to create a bnei mitzvah program that is educational for all children, regardless of learning or developmental disabilities.
  • Lincoln Square Synagogue (Manhattan) – Hosts awareness-raising events with members of the congregation and outside speakers discussing issues such as the experience of learning disabled children in the day school system, and the challenges of raising an autistic child. 
  • Stephen Wise Free Synagogue (Manhattan) – Commissioned an education specialist to design an interactive prayerbook for members of the congregation with disabilities and offers targeted Sunday school classes
  • Chabad of the Greater Five Towns – Offers a Friendship Circle group within the Hebrew school that caters to the educational needs of children with disabilities.
  • Hebrew Institute of Riverdale – Held a Yachad Shabbaton for disabled and typically-developing teenagers to learn and hang out together.
  • Congregation Sons of Israel (Westchester) – Coaches developmentally delayed individuals for their adult bnei mitzvah.
  • Beth El of Flatbush – Provides training for members of two nearby residences with mental and physical disabilities to participate, and take leadership roles, in synagogue services.

Spratt, for one, is hopeful that this award will help Rodeph Sholom “move from creating these separate experiences for families and creating some broader congregational change,” but it also reminds him that every congregation, no matter its size, doesn’t have to wait for outside recognition or funding to set out on the road to inclusion. “Every Jewish community can be taking steps to be more inclusive, to recognize more needs,” he says.

And in the process of developing inclusion programming at Rodeph Sholom, Spratt says he has, in some ways, gained as much as Gideon or any of the other participants in the programs. “Helping to bring this program forward has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life,” he says. “To sit with a family and hear them say that, as a family they’ve never been to a Rosh Hashana service, never experienced a Passover service outside of their home, these are heartbreaking things. It’s difficult to see in the Jewish world, where we’re so progressive on so many issues, that there are so many people that we have intentionally or unintentionally excluded.”

Synagogues or communities that are interested in creating or improving their inclusion programming should consult the resources on our Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month page.