How can we make our congregation more welcoming and inclusive of families in which a member is living with a disability?
While there are many things congregations can do to make a building more accessible, the psychological and social obstacles to full inclusion often are as much or more of an impediment than the absence of a ramp. Here are some steps you can take to welcome people with disabilities and their families to your congregation:
Recognize that, often, people with disabilities and their family members don't come to synagogue or join congregations because no one invites them! Just like outreach to other populations, your congregation's brochures, online advertisements and congregational newsletters should expressly invite and welcome people with disabilities, using people first language ("a person who uses a wheelchair" rather than "a wheelchair bound person") and note that the staff and membership are committed to understanding and providing whatever is needed to make participation possible.
Start an Inclusion Committee. People with disabilities should be invited to join the committee, as should education, worship, youth, preschool and adult programming leaders.
Mention psychiatric illnesses when offering a Mi Shebeirach and acknowledge how many of us may be struggling with anxiety and depression. (See Caring for the Soul: R'fuat HaNefesh)
As far as the things you can do to make your building more accessible, consider the following:
Hang mezuzot lower on the doorframe
Place prayer books and secular literature and brochures on lower tables, shelves and racks
Serve food on lower tables at Oneg Shabbat
Most important, remember that each and every one of us who lives to older age will experience living with disabilities, whether they are temporary disabilities due to an accident, surgery or life stresses, or something ongoing. Acknowledging and integrating these realities diminishes isolation and reduces stigma, and helps create communities that are accessible and welcoming for all.
How can our congregation start a Caring Committee? Is it really necessary or helpful?
Yes, a Caring Committee is definitely helpful and therefore necessary!
Every congregation strives to be a place of welcome and compassion, a place where members feel a sense of belonging and connection. Yet in congregations both large and small, members often note that when they were sick, no one seemed to know or provide help; when they were caring for a chronically ill family member, they felt isolated and forgotten; when they were home with a small infant no one noticed they did not come to services; when they were bereaved no one called or visited after the shivah.
This doesn't have to be the case. Communities that develop ways of being aware of what is going on in members' lives and then develop ways of responding are ones in which members feel a true sense of belonging and support. Simply put, congregations can share information and provide acknowledgement, support and comfort by creating a Caring Committee.
Committees are made up of volunteers who work collaboratively with professional staff, including clergy, to fulfill a variety of vital functions. Caring Committee members may receive a general orientation and/or specific training as required. Depending upon the needs in your congregation at any given time, committee members may be tasked with a range of activities, including:
Bringing meals to people who are recovering from surgery
Delivering Jewish lullaby tapes, mezuzot, tiny candlesticks and yarmulkes to families with new babies;
Making calls and visits to people in the months following bereavement
Offering members who cannot drive rides to synagogue programs
While the myth has been that Jewish people are less likely to become alcoholics or abuse substances than members of other ethnic and religious groups, the reality is that our community is equally vulnerable to those problems. How can our congregation help with prevention and with offering support to families affected by substance abuse?
It is often difficult to begin this conversation because of the stigma, denial and wish for privacy surrounding this issue. One small step every congregation can take is simply acknowledging the reality that substance abuse touches all of our families in some way: rich families, poorer families, families with various education backgrounds and families who practice and observe their faith differently. When clergy mention this reality from the bimah, stigma is diminished and support is offered without anyone needing to self identify.
Congregations can be helpful in prevention and in offering support to individuals and families in recovery by providing programs that help children, teens and adults to manage stress and painful feelings. Programs can include support groups, Jewish meditation groups, exercise programs and programs about conflict resolution and validating communication.
Your community may also consider hosting Alcoholics Anonymous, Alanon, Alateen and JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others) groups, even though members who are addicted may choose to attend in other settings in order to protect anonymity. Hosting such groups sends a message: it is Jewish, holy and valuable to help people who are seeking to overcome addictions.
Youth groups, confirmation class and bar and bat mitzvah workshops can be places to discuss stresses; healthy ways of managing emotion; cultural pressures encouraging drug and alcohol use; and where to go if a person is experiencing a problem.
Jewish people in recovery can be invited to speak at services and in youth and adult education programs. Clergy can indicate their availability to provide support and referrals, and they can speak in sermons about the hidden substance abuse struggles and sobriety successes of Jewish people and their families. Each congregation can have a library of Jewish sources of support including the works of the following experts:
Rabbi Abraham Twerski, MD, psychiatrist and prolific writer who has been the director of a drug treatment center
Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, who has written extensively on Jewish 12-step programs
Rabbi Rami Shapiro, author of RecoveryThe Sacred Art: The Twelve Steps as a Spiritual Practice
February is Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month and during this time the URJ highlights the many approaches that our congregations can take to ensure the full participation of people with disabilities and their families. Please visit the RJ Blog during February to learn how individuals living with a disability and professionals and lay leaders are working to make Judaism and the Jewish community a source of strength and belonging.