This High Holiday season Jews across the world will come together in synagogues and temples to welcome the New Year. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are among the holiest times on the Jewish calendar, and it’s the season to make sure everyone can participate in their own way. There are primers and High Holiday companion booklets that help people to find meaning in observance and prayer. Just as important are toolkits and other resources to include all people in the High Holiday experience.

In a recent conversation with JewishBoston, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility, an organization that “fights stigmas and advances opportunities for people with disabilities,” talked about her experiences at High Holiday services as the parent of a child with a disability. “My child behaves differently than other children,” she said. “One time on Yom Kippur was one of those times my child was behaving differently. Congregants complained and we were asked to leave.”

Arlene Remz, executive director of Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, noted in an email exchange with JewishBoston: “Nobody comes to synagogue with the goal of annoying the people around them. So give people the benefit of the doubt and presume that everybody’s doing the best they can. If somebody is disrupting your experience, assume they don’t have the tools they need to express themselves.”

To welcome everyone into the synagogue, RespectAbility has created a “High Holiday Disability Tool Kit for Synagogue Professional Staff, Lay Leadership & Volunteers.” The 47-page booklet covers topics that include terminology, alternative seating arrangements, sensory calming room and usher tips. An important takeaway for this High Holiday season is that words matter. Remz explained that using “people-first language” is paramount when addressing a person with a disability or writing about inclusion.

“Language matters a lot,” agreed Laszlo Mizrahi. “The best thing is to call someone by their name. Someone who has Down syndrome is not their disability. A person is not a wheelchair user but someone who uses a wheelchair. People first. Ask someone their preferred way to be called and you’ll find that most of the time it is by their name versus their label.”

RespectAbility’s toolkit offers a similar lesson. Laszlo Mizrahi and her team provide a helpful list of dos and don’ts when addressing a person with a disability. The list of don’ts is particularly illuminating for someone who is well intentioned but may not know the appropriate vocabulary to address a person with a disability.

Do not use:

  • “Disabled person”
  • “Confined to a wheelchair” or “wheelchair bound” (a wheelchair enables people to get around and participate in society; it’s liberating, not confining)
  • “Blind/deaf person” or “deaf and dumb”
  • Euphemistic terms such as “physically challenged”

Remz and Laszlo Mizrahi offer advice to clergy, congregants and people with a disability to prepare for a meaningful High Holiday experience. Since most of us are congregants during the High Holidays, Remz encourages us not to be the person giving someone “that look” when a congregant or their children are being disruptive. “This, more than anything else,” said Remz, “makes people with disabilities and their families feel unwelcome. Smile, go up to people and introduce yourself.”

The women noted that clergy can work in tandem with ushers who are the people “on the ground.” Ushers are usually the first to greet a congregant, and clergy has a role in “helping them set up a scenario,” said Laszlo Mizrahi. “Clergy should go through a checklist with ushers about everything from wheelchair access to pointing out the accessible restroom.”

Remz asserted that a person with a disability or parent who has a child with a disability might want “to go over what to expect. Talk about last year’s services; look at a video of a High Holiday service. Some synagogues keep videos of their past services on their websites or YouTube. Write a social story about what to expect this coming year.”

Laszlo Mizrahi observed that it’s important to recognize that the majority of disabilities are invisible. “When people think about disability, they say, ‘I’m going to look for the individual who is blind or uses a wheelchair,’” she said. “For the majority of people who have a disability, it is not apparent. They can have chronic pain and illnesses or have mental health issues. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that one out of every four adults has a disability. People with disabilities are discriminated against, but disability doesn’t discriminate against groups. Every demographic is impacted by disability.”

Added Remz: “Synagogues embrace so many forms of diversity: age, gender, religious background, sexual orientation, race, socioeconomic status. Understand that disability is just another one of the magnificent manifestations of human diversity, and embrace it.”