Parashat Mishpatim

Friday, February 9, 2018 /24 Shevat, 5778
Parashat Mishpatim Exodus 21:1-24:18
Dear Friends,
When you enter our building, does it feel inclusive to you? What does that inclusion look like or feel like? What does it mean to be an inclusive congregation? These are questions that we and all congregations should be asking themselves especially throughout this month which is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month.
When we hear the word “inclusion,” we may first think about creating a comfortable place for intermarried families, single parent or same sex families, biracial families or individuals and the like. However, inclusion in this context focuses on welcoming people with disabilities, those that are visible and those that are not. Inclusion is about creating an environment where children and adults with their own unique learning styles and behavior patterns are welcomed and made to feel comfortable. Is Temple Beth El inclusive for those with disabilities and different types of abilities? In many places, yes, and in others, not yet.
Just a few years ago, our physical space would have been graded with an “F” for inclusion. Before the remodel the main entrance was down three stairs, an insurmountable barrier for anyone in a wheelchair. When we began thinking at first of modest building renovations, our priority was a ramp out front so that everyone could enter through the front door. What began as a project to install a ramp took on a life of its own, and I am proud to say that in many areas of our building, we are much more accessible than we have ever been; however, we still have work to do.
Our ramp enables everyone to enter through the front door and the doors are wide enough to accommodate electric wheelchairs and scooters easily. During the renovations we consulted with a member who uses a wheelchair and is a fierce advocate when it comes to accessibility issues. We incorporated many of his suggestions into the remodel.
For example, the reason Cantor Davidson and I switched sides on the bimah was so that a person who is called to the bimah for an honor could enter from the side door and remove the barrier that the bimah stairs create for some. He or she would not have to walk across (or scoot across) the entire bimah, which was also impossible to do during the High Holy Days when the choir was situated on that side and blocked access.
Our Mezzuzot are placed low enough to be touched by someone who is in a wheelchair; most of our signage includes braille; we have listening devices to amplify our voices for those whose hearing is compromised. For gender inclusion, we have a dedicated single toilet bathroom so that someone who is transgender or non-gender conforming feels comfortable and safe in a private restroom.
Nevertheless, we have more to do. We need more large print prayer books. Ideally we’d have an adjustable readers table on the bimah. I am sure there are subtle changes in language or advertising we could do that would send a more inclusive message to the community. We are better than we were a few years ago; however, we still have a way to go.
As we continue to mark the days of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, I make two requests; first, link to these resources provided by the Union for Reform Judaism to learn more about what you can do to heighten your awareness. Second, let us know where we are missing the mark and are making accessibility or inclusion difficult for you or someone you know. In reading this list, I see certain things that we are doing and others that we are not. If you have difficulty utilizing areas of our building, please let us know how we can improve and be more inclusive. This is especially the case for those whose disabilities are not as visible.
Be aware, educate yourself, and advocate for needs both in our synagogue and in the larger community.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Chuck Briskin