14 Ways to Make Your High Holidays Services Accessible to Everyone

A sweet new year begins with audacious hospitality, making sure everyone feels welcome in the Jewish community. As part of High Holiday preparation, congregations can take a number of simple steps to help create an accessible and sacred space for people of all abilities so that everyone can fully participate.

  1. Ask people what they need. The best way to make sure that everyone can participate is to ask people what will make this possible for them. Congregations can invite feedback through emails, registration, and membership forms, as well as in bulletins and handouts at services.
  1. Use “people-first language” when referring to people with disabilities. Put the person before their disability, i.e. “This congregant is blind and needs a Braille prayer book” rather than “This blind congregant needs a Braille prayer book.” Better yet, just say, “This congregant needs a Braille prayer book”!
  1. Publicize accessibility and accommodations. Mention available accommodations in your online and Shabbat bulletins, even if this information is also included on ticket request forms (as it should be!). List a contact person for sign language interpreters, loop systems, large-print or Braille prayer books, iPads for large-print downloadable prayer books, etc. Indicate, too, how people with disabilities and their families can secure reserved seating, parking spaces, and volunteer assistance.

  1. Offer inclusive childcare/babysitting options. Look within your congregation or beyond for people with special education training to be available for childcare and to help during children’s and family worship services. Ask parents who will use these during services to explain what their children will need to be at ease and able to participate.
  1. Facilitate accessible parking. As cars enter the parking lot, have volunteers point out reserved parking for people with disabilities; some congregations even offer valet parking. Allow people with disabilities to exit their cars near the synagogue entrance, and have volunteers available to offer assistance, if it is requested.
  1. Train ushers and staff to confidently and tactfully facilitate the participation of people with disabilities. Ensure that staff and volunteers know to use people-first language and to ask people with disabilities what assistance they might need (rather than, say, automatically taking someone’s arm to guide them). Speak directly to people with disabilities, rather than to their family members, aides, or sign language interpreters. Face the person and speak in a clear and normal tone, being prepared to repeat or rephrase if necessary.
  1. Place everything at a level reachable for all worshipers. Place kippot, prayer books, and any other literature at a level that can be reached by everyone including people using wheelchairs.
  1. Try not to relegate people with disabilities to the back of the sanctuary. If the worship space allows, offer people in wheelchairs (and their families) options regarding seating, rather than automatically guiding them to the back of the sanctuary. If a sign language interpreter is present, lead people who are deaf or hard of hearing, along with their families, toward the front of the sanctuary so they can see the interpreter.
  1. Provide space for worshipers who need some time away from the service or program. Some worshipers may need a break during services because of sensory overload, allergy to fragrances, or discomfort after sitting for long periods of time. Designate a space in another room, outdoors, or otherwise removed from crowds, where worshipers may take a break. Be sure to publicize the presence of this space.
  1. Use inclusive language from the bimah. Although intended to be inclusive, phrases such as “Rise if you are able” (instead of just “Please rise”) may suggest that those who cannot stand cannot fully participate in the actions and spirit of the service. Instead, when asking worshippers to rise, add that those in wheelchairs or with difficulty standing can show their respect from their seats. This small difference in language indicates that all worshipers can fully participate.
  1. Announce page numbers, including which handouts/books are being used. This helps all worshipers to feel confident that they are following along.
  1. Provide an illustrated schedule for each service. Many people find it helpful to see an outline or picture schedule that explains the order of the service (a natural Jewish example is the listing of steps of the Passover seder, which are illustrated in most haggadot). On the High Holidays, create a handout that lists parts of the service with corresponding page numbers; distribute it as an insert or with other literature for services.
  1. Include people with disabilities in your services. Offer honors and roles during worship to people with disabilities, being sure to allow time for participants to practice their roles and become familiar with the space and accommodations available at the service.
  1. Make it physically possible for people with disabilities to lead from the front of the sanctuary. Clear a path, if necessary, to ensure that the ramp to the bimah is accessible to people with disabilities who have a role in the service. In congregations where the bimah is inaccessible (i.e. stairs but no ramp), provide a low reading table so that everyone can participate in the service.

We all share the goal of creating communities in which all worshipers feel needed, welcomed, and able to participate, not just at the High Holidays but all year long. These suggestions share approaches that people with disabilities, their families, and their congregations have found effective and respectful. Share your own tips in the comments section!

This webinar, “Tips to Increase Disabilities Inclusion in Services,” can be a great tool to help congregations prepare for the High Holiday season, as well as for other worship services and events throughout the year. For more information, visit the URJ-Ruderman Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center.

Want to learn more about inclusion? The Ruderman Inclusion Summit, held Nov. 1-2, 2015 , in Boston, will foster strategic advocacy and awareness, peer to peer learning, best practices, networking, and more. Register now at inclusion2015.org.

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Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher, LCSW

About Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher, LCSW

Rabbi Edythe Mencher serves as Faculty for Sacred Caring Community and Coordinator of the URJ-Ruderman Family Foundation Partnership for Inclusion of People with Disabilities. Rabbi Mencher was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (New York) in 1999. She received certification from the Westchester Center for the Study of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy in 1989 and currently serves on the faculty of the Training Institute. She earned her Master of Social Work degree from Hunter College School of Social Work and is a licensed clinical social worker. Rabbi Mencher is the major author of Resilience of the Soul -- Developing Spiritual and Emotional Resilience in Adolescents and their Families, a program guide focusing upon how Jewish communities and tradition can help adolescents and their families develop positive ways of managing stress and difficult emotions. Rabbi Mencher is an adjunct faculty member of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Interfaith Doctor of Ministry Program in Pastoral Counseling.

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