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24 Jewish Groups Release a Guide to Accessible Virtual High Holiday Services

Los Angeles, California, August 11 – A coalition of 24 Jewish organizations, led by the disability nonprofit RespectAbility, is pleased to announce the release of a new toolkit to help congregations ensure their High Holiday services and related events are accessible – Opening Your Virtual Gates: Making Online High Holiday Celebrations Accessible to All.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing many synagogues and communities of worship to move at least part of their High Holiday services, if not all, to an online format. The Jewish world is spending significant time and energy determining how to create a meaningful, spiritual experience online, and RespectAbility, working with Rabbis Lauren Tuchman and Darby Leigh, created a guide to ensure this includes the one in five Jews with disabilities. Leigh, who is Deaf, and Tuchman, who is blind, bring both their deep knowledge as rabbis and critical lived experiences.

A coalition including Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the Union for Reform Judaism, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Reconstructing Judaism, and more than a dozen other organizations are releasing this guide together to try to ensure that every prayer community that is seeking to create a virtual High Holiday receives this guide. Anyone who wishes also may download a copy from the RespectAbility website.

“RespectAbility is an outgrowth of the Jewish Funders Network Disability Inclusion Committee. It was born in Jewish values, that people with disabilities could participate fully and share their talent with the world, just like everyone else,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, CEO of RespectAbility, who herself is dyslexic. “I am pleased that even at this time of unprecedented disruption in the Jewish world, this guide will help to realize that vision for as many Jews as possible as they celebrate the High Holidays this year.”

Indeed, many of the suggestions in the guide are easy to implement, and they even will help Jews without disabilities to better access virtual services this year. Many English-language learners, and those following along in Hebrew, find it is helpful to have both sounds and captions when they are following content. Really, a lot 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.

“It is impossible not to feel some sadness that the in-person gatherings that so many of us treasure will not be an option this year, and yet I am heartened that one of the values of a properly accessible virtual service are the number of people it can reach,” said Matan Koch, the director of RespectAbility California and Jewish leadership, who is also a wheelchair user. “This includes people with disabilities who find themselves unable to travel to synagogue even when it is not a time of pandemic, and Deaf/Hard of Hearing Jews, whose own synagogues do not offer accessibility, who will be able to stream into a service with the ASL and captioning recommended by this guide.”

The guide was created in collaboration between Rabbis Tuchman and Leigh and  RespectAbility’s Jewish team, which, in addition to Mrs. Mizrahi and Mr. Koch, includes Vice President of Communications, Lauren Appelbaum, a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary; Director of Community Outreach & Impact Debbie Fink; Communications Associate Eric Asher; and Jewish Leadership Associate Joshua Steinberg. The Board co-chairs for our Jewish work include Shelley Richman Cohen, co-founder of RespectAbility, and Vivian Bass, both longtime leaders in the Jewish community. Additional board members involved with our Jewish work include Linda L. Burger, Judith Creed, Heidi Krizer Daroff, Ila Eckhoff, Gabrielle Einstein-Sim, Donna Meltzer, Neil Jacobson and Delbert A. Whetter.

RespectAbility’s copromoters in releasing this guide include:

  • Avodah
  • BJE JkidLA
  • B’nai David-Judea Congregation
  • Edlavitch DCJCC
  • IKAR
  • Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ – Greater MetroWest ABLE
  • Jewish Federations of North America
  • Jewish Los Angeles Special Needs Trust
  • JQ International
  • Keshet
  • Keshet: For LGBTQ Equality in Jewish Life
  • Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah
  • Matan
  • Moment Magazine
  • National Ramah Commission
  • Reconstructing Judaism
  • Shalom Institute
  • The Jewish Journal
  • The Miracle Project
  • The Women’s Rabbinic Network
  • Union for Reform Judaism
  • United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
  • Whole Community Inclusion at Jewish Learning Venture

For more information, please contact Matan Koch at MatanK@RespectAbility.org.

Meet the Author

Lauren Appelbaum

Lauren Appelbaum is the VP, Communications and Entertainment & News Media, of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities so all people with disabilities can fully participate in every aspect of community. As an individual with an acquired nonvisible disability – Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy – she works at the intersection of disability, employment, Hollywood and politics. She regularly conducts trainings on the why and how to be more inclusive and accessible for entertainment executives throughout the industry. Appelbaum partners with studios, production companies and writers’ rooms to create equitable and accessible opportunities to increase the number of people with lived disability experience throughout the overall story-telling process. These initiatives increase diverse and authentic representation of disabled people on screen, leading to systemic change in how society views and values people with disabilities. She has consulted on more than 100 TV episodes and films with A&E, Bunim-Murray Productions, NBCUniversal, Netflix, ViacomCBS, and The Walt Disney Company, among others. She represents RespectAbility on the CAA Full Story Initiative Advisory Council, Disney+ Content Advisory Council, MTV Entertainment Group Culture Code and Sundance Institute’s Allied Organization Initiative. She is the author of The Hollywood Disability Inclusion Toolkit and the creator of an innovative Lab Program for entertainment professionals with disabilities working in development, production and post-production. She is a recipient of the 2020 Roddenberry Foundation Impact Award for this Lab. To reach her, email LaurenA@RespectAbility.org.

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