This year synagogues are acclimating to a new normal in this time of the pandemic. Many houses of worship are addressing their online presence with respect to inclusion policies during the High Holidays. More traditional congregations bear inclusion in mind as they implement social distancing measures and shorten services within Jewish law parameters.

There is plenty of guidance available for synagogues from organizations and activists that advocate for disability rights. The Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project has been at the forefront of helping synagogues put best practices into place when it comes to inclusion. In partnership with CJP, RSIP identifies resources and offers financial assistance to enable synagogues to set themselves up as welcoming spaces for anyone with a disability. On the CJP website, RSIP has culled an impressive array of COVID-19 resources that highlight mental health as a priority during the pandemic.

The pandemic edition of this year’s “High Holiday Guide to Inclusive Congregations,” written by Inclusion Innovations in partnership with RSIP, states: “Although our holidays may be different, the same principles of belonging and inclusion apply: Encouraging and supporting people to participate and feel that they belong; and ensuring that all people are included. As Jews, these are sacred values we hold dear no matter how different our services and gatherings will be this year.”

Other COVID-19 inclusion resources include Gateways: Access to Jewish Education. Embarking on its second decade, Gateways is committed to meeting the needs of every Jewish child of every ability and providing them with a purposeful Jewish education. The organization is at the forefront of delivering services to individuals, families, educators, day and congregational schools, preschools, synagogues and organizations “to promote the meaningful inclusion of individuals of all abilities in Jewish life.” Gateways exists “to fulfill young people’s potential, enrich family life, strengthen Greater Boston’s Jewish community and help create new norms for diversity and inclusivity in the Jewish community at large.”

Sandy Gold, director of Jewish education programs at Gateways, spoke to JewishBoston about the organization’s efforts to make the High Holidays accessible. “When it comes to the High Holidays,” said Gold, “we created three social stories available on our website to help kids understand what going to a synagogue or temple will be like this year. In one scenario, kids imagine what it’s like to go to in-person services where they wear a mask, but the Torah is not passed around. Another scenario is attending services outside where they wear masks, see friends and see the Torah, but not touch it. A third scenario addresses what it’s like to experience services over a computer screen.”

Last spring, in partnership with RSIP, Gold presented a series of 10 questions for synagogues to consider while remaining inclusive in remote scenarios. The questions ranged from confirming that mission statements reflected best remote practices to outreach and overall accessibility. Among the issues to ponder were inquiries about the role of a synagogue’s inclusion committee while operating remotely, ensuring how remote services will remain accessible and planning for the future when there’s a return to in-person gatherings.

The Maryland-based RespectAbility, a national Jewish organization that describes itself as “fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities,” provides a list of statistics highlighting the importance of accessibility for High Holiday services:

  • 20% of people in the U.S. are deaf/hard of hearing; that’s 48 million Americans. A substantial percentage of folks who are hard of hearing are the elderly typically found in many congregations and communities.
  • More than 1 million people in the U.S. are blind and more than 12 million have low vision.
  • It’s likely that more than 40 million Americans have a learning disability.
  • Many English-language learners, and those following along in Hebrew, find that it’s helpful to have both sounds and captions when they are following content.
  • Many of the things we think of as accessibility measures, like captions, identification of speakers or the availability of materials in advance, are helpful to many people learning to acclimate to a digital world, not only people with disabilities.

Rabbi Darby Leigh of Kerem Shalom in Concord wrote the introduction to RespectAbility’s virtual High Holiday guide, called “Opening Your Virtual Gates: Making Online High Holiday Celebrations Accessible to All.” Leigh captures the spirit of High Holiday inclusion when he writes: “When one creates accommodations and access for all, sometimes people think doing so benefits the person or people with disabilities who now have access to services. While that may be true, it is only a partial truth. In reality, creating accommodations and access benefits the community as a whole. If people with disabilities aren’t present in your spiritual community, then you don’t really have a spiritual community, you have a private club with homogenous membership.”

While this High Holiday season in the era of COVID-19 will look different, the Jewish value of inclusion will hold firm. As Leigh wrote: “In order to have a true spiritual community, the membership of the community needs to reflect the breadth and depth of God’s creation of human beings, which, of course, includes people with disabilities.”