It’s not everyday that I get emails from both the Orthodox Union/Yachad and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism on the same topic –increasing disability inclusion in our synagogues. And it is even more rare to read that the four major Jewish streams—Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox and Reform—have come together for the first time on the issue and created a new joint initiative called “Hineinu” (“We are here”).
The focus of this new initiative is on the sacred space of our synagogues. By joining together, the four streams will share their best practices and encourage all synagogues to proactively become more welcoming communities, both physically and emotionally.
During the first year, the plans are to:
• Create a network of synagogues and professionals among all four movements that will help achieve the goal of making disability inclusion the standard at every synagogue
• Convene community leaders, sharing materials and online resources, networking between lay leadership and disability professionals, and fostering the establishment or growth of synagogue-based inclusion committees.
• Author and share a community-wide resource guide with simple and low-cost suggestions for how synagogues can begin to be more disability Inclusive.
Interestingly, this initiative started at both ends of the observant spectrum, with Deborah Berman, LCSW, director of social work for Yachad and Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, senior advisor on disability issues for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. The Conservative and Reconstructionist movements were then invited to join.
Each movement will implement the suggestions to meet the needs of their own constituencies and will share those adaptations for its specific practices, on their movement websites. “There will be no sharing of religious services or practices between the OU and other denominations – that is not the goal of Hineinu,” said Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman, international director of the National Jewish Council for Disabilities (NJCD), which includes Yachad.
Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, the Senior Adviser on Disability Issues for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said:
"In Berachot (34b), the Talmud teaches that a synagogue must be built with windows in the sanctuary. I believe this is so we can see who is outside and unable to join us. As Jews, we have to maintain 'mental windows' everywhere so that we can recognize all people, including people with disabilities, as people first. We must look beyond the disability—beyond the 'container' —and see the person within, the person with often unacknowledged, and therefore, untapped potential."
As we get ready to celebrate “Thanksgivukkah,” next week, let’s take a moment to reflect on this historic unity around such an important community issue and hope that this can lead to other collaborative efforts in the future. Who knows? Maybe even Congress can learn a lesson or two on cross aisle cooperation for the greater good.