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Introduction

“Judaism teaches us that we are all created b’Tzelem Elokim—in the Image of The Divine. That doesn’t mean only some of us, that’s all of us. When we include the true richness and fullness of Am Yisrael in our spiritual communities, we are truly living out our people’s mandate to be an Or L’goyim—a light unto the nations as the Prophet Isaiah famously teaches. Access accommodations don’t only benefit those directly requesting—they are emblematic of our deep-seated values. Every human being is infinitely precious. What is the fast Hashem desires, asks Isaiah? Is it one that merely makes us feel good about ourselves or is it intended to transform society and the world? Our spiritual communities aren’t able to help us transform ourselves and our world if we do not seek to include all who thirst for Torah’s life-giving waters.”

– Rabbi Lauren Tuchman

Hello, my name is Matan Koch. I lead Jewish programming at RespectAbility, an organization that fights stigmas and advances opportunities so that those of us who have disabilities can participate in all aspects of society. I am also a person with a disability, and I want to thank each of you in advance for using this document. While ironically I do not have any special access needs for virtual services, as a power wheelchair user, much of my young life was spent facing significant physical barriers to the spiritual experience that I wanted. This was especially true at the High Holidays, where the excess of crowding many people into small spaces would often cause those of us who used wheelchairs, even me, the Rabbi’s son, to be pushed literally into forgotten corners.

With the unique access challenges presented by virtual High Holidays, too many could experience this equivalent lack of access, or worse, be totally unable to participate. I want to thank you profoundly for your commitment to make sure that the members of your community who have disabilities can join with the community at this sacred time. As much as I will miss the in person connection, I am also very excited that the virtual format means that those of you that do utilize accessibility features will be able to extend access to people whose communities traditionally do not offer it, the silver lining if you will.

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 we want to ensure it also is accessible to the one in five Jews with disabilities. The good news is that it is easy to make online services, and related events, accessible to everyone if you know how.

Ensuring accessibility during the planning process of your high holiday events is extremely important for several reasons:

  • Twenty percent of people in the U.S. are Deaf/Hard of Hearing; that is 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 is likely that more than 40 million Americans have a learning disability.
  • These numbers are proportionally similar within the Jewish community.
  • 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.
  • 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.

The real message behind these statistics and arguments, however, is simple. The Jewish community, like all communities, is stronger when it lives up to its values – when it is welcoming, diverse, moral, and respects each other. We want children, parents, grandparents, friends, and other family members with disabilities to be able to fully participate in their communities, because that will make us the strongest community we can be.

It is vitally important to focus on how you want to utilize recordings before implementing anything. After all, it always is easier to make changes during the planning stages than after the fact. Moreover, if you are planning to post a video of the event after the fact, you also will want to ensure accessibility during the actual event, even if no live participants request one. This applies especially to classes and/or celebrations, but, with the challenges posed by the pandemic, some people may be watching your services from other time zones after the fact, which means that it might be valuable to share recordings. There has been a concerted effort in the Jewish world as part of our recognition that we must come to be together as best we can, so some resources, such as the JewishLive Facebook page, are intentionally gathering such recordings.

RespectAbility wants to acknowledge that, due to differing degrees of observance and interpretations of Jewish law, use of online formats for Orthodox and some Conservative high holiday services may be unlikely. Still, this toolkit should be applicable to all classes and or events held during Elul leading up to Rosh Hashana and beyond.

The bottom line is, whether you are a synagogue, a Havurah, or any other group praying together, it is important to make your services and programs as accessible as possible. This guide contains some steps you should take before, during and after your service or other event to ensure it is as accessible as possible for all people.

We hope you will make your own special and holy experience this year and this offering of ours will help you to make it accessible to everyone. Shana Tova!

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