From ASL interpreters to service dogs, Orthodox shuls trying to be more inclusive

Wheelchair-accessible bimah platforms, like this one at Young Israel of Toco Hills, in Atlanta, are among the changes Orthodox synagogues are making to be more inclusive of Jews with disabilities. Photo Courtesy Young Israel of Toco Hills.

By Abigail Pickus

Erik Bittner can pinpoint the exact moment he felt his son with autism was truly included at his family’s Orthodox synagogue, Shaarei Tefillah in Newton, Massachusetts. It was a Shabbat morning and the gabbai – the sexton orchestrating services — called Bittner’s 24-year-old son, Nathan, up for an aliyah, to recite the blessings over the Torah.

“Nathan whizzed through the brachot and he was effusive in his gratitude for going up there,” Bittner recalled, using the Hebrew word for blessings. “He shook everyone’s hand. It was a touching emotional moment.”

But the next week when Nathan showed up late and afterward asked why he didn’t get an aliyah, the gabbai responded: “I only give aliyahs to people who show up on time.”

Bittner wasn’t upset; on the contrary. He was pleased his son was treated like anybody else.

“Real inclusion means those with special needs are held to the same standards as everyone else — as long as those standards do not exclude them,” Bittner said.

The episode is a sign of the changes beginning to take place in many Orthodox synagogues, where communities are going to greater-than-ever lengths to be more inclusive of Jews with disabilities. The changes, both cultural and physical, are transforming congregations that traditionally have been slower to adapt than those affiliated with more liberal Jewish denominations.

Orthodox shuls are now installing wheelchair-friendly ramps to bimah platforms, providing large-print or Braille prayer books for the visually impaired, bringing in ASL interpreters for the deaf and offering inclusive programming for kids with physical and developmental disabilities.

At Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan, which moved into its new, fully accessible building in 2013, the congregation provides ASL for events upon advance request and on Purim has run programs for those with sensitivity to noise.

In Los Angeles, B’nai David-Judea, which long has had bimah ramps, recently added better signage and magnifying glasses for the visually impaired.It has a sign language interpreter available, and is discussing ways to make kids’ programming more inclusive of children with disabilities.

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