Jewish Disability Awareness

From Rabbi William Kuhn
Etched in stone on the front portals of our magnificent Rodeph Shalom sanctuary are the powerful words of the prophet Isaiah: “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.” (Isaiah 56:5)

We proudly declare these words for all to see on Broad Street, as we truly believe that this is who we are at Rodeph Shalom. But do we really mean these words? What if you are in a wheel chair, or using a walker, or you are not able to ascend the steps to get into our sanctuary? Or the four (4) large steps to get into our Mt. Vernon Street entrance, which now for all intents and purposes is our front door? If you are in this category, then this is NOT a house of prayer (or study or meeting or anything) “for all people.” We are only a building for all “able bodied” people (or as a friend of mine calls us “not-yet-disabled” people).

Accessibility for all people is one of the highest goals of our congregation, and one of the most important reasons we are improving and expanding our building.

Jewish tradition teaches us that we have an obligation to ensure equal access for all people and to help facilitate the full participation in the life of our congregation of individuals with disabilities. We are taught “Do not separate yourself from the community” (Pirke Avot 2:5). This is why we need to provide equal access in our newly renovated building, because we do not want to be the cause of anyone being separated from this community.

“Do not place a stumbling block before the blind” is one of the most important commandments in the “Holiness Code” in the Book of Leviticus (19:14). This can be interpreted metaphorically to mean that we place stumbling blocks before those who are not able to easily access our building. We are obligated to remove these stumbling blocks (steps), as this is one of our highest values as Reform Jews.

The great medieval sage Maimonides taught that “every member of the Jewish people is obligated to study Torah – whether one is rich or poor, physically able or with physical disability.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Talmut Torah, Ch. 10). But if they cannot access our building to study Torah, we are not allowing all Jews to fulfill this mitzvah.

I am so proud of our congregation for having the compassion to make our building more easily accessible. When we complete our new addition and expansion, we will be expressing some of the most sacred ideals and core principles of Judaism.

Now is the time for each member of Congregation Rodeph Shalom to participate in the Legacy Campaign. It has never been clearer during this month of February, Jewish Disability Awareness Month, that we are leaving a legacy of caring, compassion, “rachmones” to help ensure the future of all of Jewish people.

(Some material gathered from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism)


From Judith Creed, President, Jewish Community Homes for Adult Independence

When my son, Jonah, was born in 1973 and diagnosed as being disabled, the picture for people with special needs was pretty bleak. There were no social programs, synagogues did not accept special needs children in their schools, and we all were worried about the future of our kids. In 1987 a group of parents and myself got together and we opened our first group home—that would include Shabbat dinners, holidays, keeping a kosher-style kitchen and would teach our children how to live independently.

Now JCHAI has become an organization that ensures that all facets of members’ lives allow them to live as happy and productive members of the Jewish community. We teach them to take care of themselves and their apartments. We help them find and maintain jobs. We teach them how to use public transportation. We coordinate social activities for them and teach them how to make their own plans in the community for their free time as well.

And most importantly, JCHAI is the only organization in Philadelphia that, along with residential services, provides Jewish adults with disabilities the means to continue to live their lives as Jews. This aspect of JCHAI becomes even more meaningful in the face of statistics that show that Jews with disabilities, and their families, feel rejected by the Jewish community. Only 25% of Jews with disabilities feel that their religion is “very important” in their lives.

Interestingly, a recent poll shows that for Jews aged 18-29, 88% of them feel strongly that Jewish events and organizations should be as welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities as everyone else. In fact, of all issues on which they were surveyed – Israel, raising their children Jewish -- they ranked inclusion as the most important to them.|911|920086|5&digest=coNz%2bugy4uWePo8CEsZm0Q&sysid=1

Including Jews with disabilities in our community is important for all of us. We will all benefit from the richer community that we create by celebrating contributions from everyone who wants to be a Jew.

-Judith Creed,
President, Judith Creed Homes for Adult Independence


From Michael Hauptman, Master Facility Plan Chair
A House For All People
When our synagogue building was completed in 1927, accessibility was not a concept that penetrated the social consciousness of the time. Even though the words “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people” grace our front doors, people with mobility challenges find it difficult, if not impossible, to enter, navigate throughout the building, use the restrooms or feel fully included in our events and activities. How many people gave up attending services or becoming members because it was just too hard or too embarrassing or awkward to get through the doors of our beautiful building?

In recent years, we made changes to the building that improved accessibility, but did not fully solve the problem. We created an accessible entrance to the Sanctuary from the parking lot. We built an accessible restroom on the lower level, and we lowered the bema to allow wheelchair access. But gaining entrance still requires calling ahead to make special arrangements or winding a wheelchair through narrow doorways and corridors that do not comply with modern codes; and it is still impossible to reach an accessible restroom from the Sanctuary without going outside and coming back in through another door.

This sends a terrible message about inclusion, welcoming and caring.

When we began planning our new addition, the single, most basic and consistent design concern has been accessibility. Along with safety and security, making our building fully accessible to people with mobility challenges has driven the design and remained our highest priority despite budget worries, value engineering and programming changes.

Our new addition provides an on-grade entrance with barrier-free access to all ground floor spaces including the Thalheimer Lobby, the Sanctuary, Chapel, Museum and offices as well as a new ground floor accessible restroom. It includes a covered drop-off at the entrance for car passengers. A new code-compliant elevator provides access from the Lower Level to the Fourth Floor. New accessible parking spaces reserved for drivers with mobility challenges will be within a few feet of the entrance.

Our new addition promises to enrich the vibrancy of our congregation and enhance the quality of our members’ lives by providing for our spatial as well as our spiritual needs. But most importantly, our new addition will finally allow us to fulfill our vision of welcoming all.


From Joan Levin, Congregation Beth Ahavah President
Arriving at Rodeph Shalom and gaining access to the building, and getting around inside the building as well, can be daunting, and frankly quite frustrating for those of us who have mobility issues. The way things are currently is entirely unacceptable. Some minor accommodations have been implemented, but they are very makeshift and/or incomplete. And those of us who have been working our way around the situation should be commended for our patience. It is not just a question of how to gain entry to the building– it is also about entering from a location that is primarily for trash and deliveries. It is akin to a “separate but equal” situation, which we all know is never equal. It’s not just inconvenient and complicated, it’s disrespectful. This will all change with the building renovations and expansion that will begin this fall. All of us will have equal access to the building.

For those of you who are currently able-bodied, thinking about how to get in and around RS is probably not foremost in your minds. There are exceptions. If one has a spouse/partner, a parent, a child, a friend, or knows anyone else who is disabled and needs assistance, then you probably are aware of accessibility issues. Otherwise, most people do not pay much attention to either the barriers that confront disabled people everyday, and specifically each time they arrive at our beautiful synagogue.

Upon arrival I park on the south side of the building where the only entry that is accessible on a daily basis exists. If I am seeking entry to the building and both the gate and door are not open, which is almost always the case, I have to start making telephone calls to gain access to the office, Roy, Mario, or one of the other security guards. Then I wait until someone arrives. Hopefully, it’s not raining. Once I get inside of the gate I go up the little metal ramp and through the “accessible” door near the Rabbi’s study behind the bimah. This takes me to the office level and the elevator. The elevator takes me anywhere I usually want to go, except the sanctuary. If I had been seeking entry to the sanctuary then I would go through the doors directly in front of the south gate outside and into the sanctuary. While in the sanctuary, I am confronted with a complete lack of barrier free access to anything much beyond the sanctuary and the Thalheimer Lobby - not the bimah, and sorry to use it in the same sentence, not the one accessible restroom that is on the lower level. In order to use the restroom, I would need to exit the sanctuary through the south side and reenter through the door behind the Bimah, after I make arrangements for the door to be unlocked. From there I go through the gallery and take the one small, old elevator downstairs and hope that the one accessible restroom in the building isn’t occupied, because it took me a long time to get there. 

About thirty years ago, when I was still able-bodied, I met a woman who was a true pioneer in advocating for barrier-free accessibility. She was quite involved in the early work that led to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). She had polio as a child and when I met her she was using a wheelchair exclusively. I still remember many things she spoke about. Although I was at that time able-bodied and quite physically active, I am a Clinical Social Worker and I was listening intently to her. She told me I was a “tab” and I had no idea what she meant by that. She was telling me that I was a “temporarily able bodied” person. She was telling the truth with some humor. At age forty-five I really found out what she meant. She was not a psychic. She was speaking of reality. And now, when I consider her words, there is a new context – it is also my new reality.

I could go on and on with these details about the current condition of our building and how it challenges me. As you can see, it takes a lot of planning and scoping out of the building in order to figure out all the possible ways around the lack of true barrier free entry and usage that we now have. Maneuvering around our building also takes an inordinate amount of patience.

This is why we must all look at the Building Expansion and Renovation and the Legacy Campaign that will make it possible as much more than additional space to meet the needs of our growing congregation. We have an obligation to make sure our sacred space is equally accessible to all who choose to enter our building for worship, study, and community. All who seek comfort and celebration in our space should never be deterred or denied dignity because we haven’t done what’s right. Many of us need this access now. Many more will need it before too long. As we age or experience illness we all face increasing physical challenges and accessibility issues that are part of how our lives are impacted.

Equal access is for all of us. When you consider making a donation to the Legacy Campaign, keep in mind that you are donating to your future as well as someone else’s present, and allow that to guide your generosity.