Five area synagogues are being honored for becoming fully accessible to congregants with disabilities, meeting a challenge set by MetroWest ABLE, a Jewish community coalition advocating for individuals with disabilities and their families.
All five synagogues responded to a stringent checklist provided by MetroWest ABLE. Improvements ranged from removing physical barriers — retrofitting doors, bathrooms, and water fountains — to providing accessible services in their religious schools, youth groups, and adult education programs.
“We hope this will be an impetus to other congregations to come along,” said MetroWest ABLE committee member Cynthia Plishtin. “It’s wonderful these congregations have undertaken and completed these tasks. It’s a very rigorous process, but they’ve done it to make the synagogues a place for every Jew.”
The five award-winning synagogues are Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell, Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, and Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob and David in West Orange.
Sharey Tefilo-Israel, the first to apply and fulfill all the requirements, will be presented with its ABLE award at the Dec. 8 meeting of its board.
Congregation officials there said the congregation has been addressing accessibility issues for at least 17 years, when Rabbi Daniel Cohen made it the subject of one of his first sermons at the synagogue. Since then, they’ve tackled everything from installing a ramp up to the bima and replacing all the pews with removable chairs, to creating a self-contained religious school for youngsters with serious disabilities who cannot be mainstreamed.
“Everyone has a place in our congregation. I think it makes us more compassionate,” said Rabbi Ellie Miller, a member of the synagogue’s clergy who spearheaded the effort to fulfill the award requirements. She called becoming totally accessible “a moral and religious imperative.”
The awards are a culmination of an effort begun with a synagogue self-assessment tool created by MetroWest ABLE a year ago to encourage synagogues to take a hard look at accessibility.
“It was an opportunity for congregations to look within, to see in which areas they were doing well and where they could improve,” said Rebecca Wanatick, community coordinator for MetroWest ABLE. The self-assessment, a checklist for the physical plant and practices of the synagogues, led to a decision to recognize those congregations that met the rigorous requirements.
MetroWest ABLE will continue to give the ABLE Awards on a rolling basis as synagogues meet the criteria.
“As much as every other Jew, the special needs population should really have access to worship and be able to participate in all synagogue activities,” said Plishtin.
The participating bodies of MetroWest ABLE (Access, Belonging and Life Enrichment for People and Families with Special Needs) are MetroWest agencies Daughters of Israel, Friendship Circle, JESPY House, JCC MetroWest, Jewish Family Service, Jewish Vocational Service, Jewish Service for the Developmentally Disabled, Joint Chaplaincy Committee, and The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life.