United Synagogue launches drive to make its shuls more inclusive

The organisation wants people with disabilites and special needs to be able to take part in every aspect of communal life


Myrna Sass using the Shabbat lift at Cockfosters and North Southgate Synagogue (Photo: United Synagogue)

United Synagogue has launched a ground-breaking initiative to make its communities more welcoming to people with disabilities and special needs.

The announcement coincides with Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, which sheds light on accessibility challenges for the estimated 60,000 members of the Jewish community who are disabled.

As part of its drive, the US has created two new posts: Daniella Neifeld is United Synagogue’s community participation manager and Rivka Steinberg has become the organisation’s lead advocate for additional needs.

Neifeld and Steinberg have begun working on an accessibility inventory of all 57 of the US’ shuls to see where accessibility improvements could be made.

Originally from Florida and with a background in Jewish education and strategic development, Neifeld told the JC that one of her priorities was to focus on how to “bring people who feel marginalised back into the community”.

She said: “To appreciate a community, it is important to appreciate the individuals who make up the community and how to create an environment of belonging. It is essential for individuals of different needs, circumstances and outlooks to learn, grow and give back effectively.”
So far, adjustments have included Woodside Park United Synagogue adapting their classroom layout to ensure pupils with cerebral palsy have full access to all facilities. A new bimah with lower steps and a wider entrance was built by Belmont United Synagogue. Golders Green and Kenton United Synagogues moved their women’s sections downstairs for wheelchair and disability access, and Barnet, Cockfosters and North Southgate shuls have all installed shabbat lifts.

One project currently being put together is an online map to appear on the US website, which will provide accessibility information on each synagogue. Similar to the London Tube accessibility map, it will consist of each United Synagogue congregation with “icons next to it and all sorts of information, such as how level a site is, how many steps and what features are on offer”, said Neifeld.

Beyond physical access to buildings, the needs of neurodivergent people are also being considered. Services in Muswell Hill United Synagogue are being tried out in sign language, while Richmond celebrated a bar mitzvah for a boy with severe sensory issues and autism in a way that made him feel included.

Other considerations are being proposed to synagogues such as creating “quiet rooms”, where people who are prone to sensory overload can go. Many United Synagogue communities are already using a new accessible prayer book, Siddur Lakol, which contains clear print, simplified translations and phonetics.

Steinberg said they would like their shuls to be “champions for inclusion”, especially for children with additional needs so they “become adults integrated into the Jewish community”.

“We want each United Synagogue community to embrace inclusivity for young people and share the responsibility of looking after people with additional needs. This will include support with integration as they enter adulthood and move from the family home, and employment opportunities,” she said.

The US is working with and getting advice from organisations with experience in the area, such as Jewish Blind & Disabled, Kisharon Langdon, JWeb, and Gesher School.

Welcoming the new appointments, the Chief Rabbi Sir Ephraim Mirvis said he was “delighted” that the two new roles had been created to better engage people with a wide range of disabilities.

He said: “Our tradition teaches that the Jewish people are just like a Sefer Torah — a complete and perfect whole. If one single letter is missing, then the entire scroll is not able to be used. Similarly with the Jewish people, every single person counts. Our concept of community, within which every single person is valued, underpins our commitment to making everyone feel welcome and included in our synagogues. I wish Daniella and Rivka hatzlacha with their vital work.”

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