Coinciding with International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 3, Tzohar, a religious Zionist rabbinic organization striving for social justice and unity, has launched Shabbat Negishut, Hebrew for “Sabbath of Accessibility,” highlighting the need for greater accessibility to the disabled community in synagogues.

“Helping the disabled is not just making sure that there is space for one or two wheelchairs,” the organization explains. “It means being able to serve the blind or deaf community with special prayer books or acoustic considerations, or even what to do to allow a guide dog into synagogue. It means addressing the emotionally disabled as well and seeing the ‘invisible’ members of the community and many other examples.”

Renowned educator, ethicist and activist Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, who spearheaded this initiative, discussed the project with United with Israel. Following is the interview.

When did Tzohar take on this project?

“Tzohar is greatly influenced by the centrality of social justice in Jewish tradition based on the identifying character of Avraham Avinu [our forefather Abraham), as it is written, ‘And the way of God shall be guarded to do charity and justice.’ We see in the teachings of the prophets how they were so disturbed by illegitimate activities in the time of the Temple which were also guided by ideals of social justice.  And this carried through to the many halachic [Jewish legal] teachings attached to concern for those in need of assistance in terms of accessibility. Tzohar, which has always worked to advance issues of the Jewish identity of our State, stands committed to embracing these ideals and works to see them realized through our Program in Jewish Ethics.”

What changes have you managed to incorporate to date?

“The first change has been in the public attitude towards accessibility and to enhancing public awareness. Not only through the work of Tzohar, but we have certainly seen increased discussion on the issues of social justice. We made the decision that we would first tackle the areas that most affect us as a religiously observant community – in synagogues and religious institutions- and the next steps will be on the greater social level.  Last year we began with matters of physical handicap and this year we are highlighting the blind and sight-impaired.”

Is bureaucracy getting in the way?

“We’re not seeing any institutional opposition because we don’t look to be combative in any way. The main challenge we’re facing is that we are dealing with private institutions that don’t have a budget to deal with these types of changes. We’re recommending that they work at a gradual pace by dedicating even a small percentage of their budgets to encourage greater accessibility and over time we will see the changes for the better.”

It seems that even outside the synagogue, there isn’t enough awareness. For example, several neighborhoods built over the last 15-20 years are challenging for the physically disabled, with stairs connecting streets and making it impossible for the elderly or people in wheelchairs to manage. Why is that, and do you know if there is a movement to change this situation?

“That’s very true, and that is why at Tzohar, which has a natural affinity for this cause, is also embarking on a program to ensure greater accessibility at all wedding ceremonies. With people of all backgrounds attending weddings we see this as an important avenue to ensure that the issue reaches the greater society and encourages conversation on a broader set of public areas in need of change.”

Is there now a greater awareness?

“The issue of accessibility is being advanced all the time, but its moving slowly – too slowly. What is helping is the national legislative approach to encourage accessibility, and while this has limited impact on existing buildings, with new construction we are seeing far greater awareness. And inserting this into the conversation with the religious and ethical angles, we feel confident this will lead to further positive change.”

How many synagogues are participating in Shabbat Negishut? Has there been an overall interest and enthusiasm?

“It’s a cyclical process that takes time but we are seeing many synagogues who are expressing interest and we know that interest will grow over the years. This is how the process of enacting change works, and it gives us pride and confidence that our institutions will be inspired and guided by social justice and true compassion for everyone who wants to enter their doors.”

By: Atara Beck, United with Israel

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