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Taking Action on Disability Inclusion

Las Vegas Synagogue Joins Cohort to Become Even More Open, Welcoming and Accommodating

The Torah teaches that Moses’s speech disability did not prohibit him from leading the Israelites out of Egypt. In the Book of Exodus, when asked to lead, Moses initially objects that he is “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue”—a phrase that has led rabbinic interpreters to believe Moses spoke with a stutter or lisp. In response, God affirms Moses’s capabilities and notes that his brother Aaron can offer any support Moses needs to fulfill his responsibilities.

Similarly, the disabilities of many of our congregants—from emotional or mental disabilities to physical disabilities—shouldn’t prohibit them from fully and effortlessly participating in Jewish life in our kehillas (Jewish communities), and one synagogue—Midbar Kodesh (meaning “Holy Desert) Temple in Henderson, Nevada—recently made a commitment to make its community even more inclusive. It has been accepted into USCJ’s Ruderman Inclusion Action Cohort for 2018, which kicked off in January and runs through September, and is in the process of forming a committee to tackle any disability inclusion issues that arise with the support of a program consultant and best practices from other synagogues. This committee will include Director of Outreach Andrew Spivak, the rabbi and president as well as several members who have been identified to participate.

“We want to be open, welcoming and accommodating to anyone who walks in this building, so anything we can do that gets us to that goal, we’re going to do it,” says Andrew. “We’ve heard from other congregations that this is a great program and so far, we are really excited. It’s exciting for both us as well as any person looking for a spiritual home.”

While Midbar Kodesh Temple’s participation in this program will last just this year, the temple has been committed to disability inclusion since it was first founded. When they built a new synagogue campus 15 years ago, they designed it from the ground up to be completely accessible to people with physical disabilities, whether it be from an accident, disease or illness. In the pre-school and religious school, where it’s common to have students with different learning or emotional disabilities, they have worked closely with parents to find the best ways to make the school experience work for their families.

“I don’t think the number of people with disabilities is growing,” says Andrew about the need to proactively address disability inclusion. “I think it’s because we’ve been able to have a conversation about it. Our members, who might not have spoken up previously, now feel comfortable enough to talk about their disabilities, especially when it comes to their kids. Decades ago, we would have seen these kids as falling behind or being disruptive, but now we’re taking a look at why this is happening and what we can do to support them.”

One of Andrew’s favorite examples of how Midbar Kodesh Temple has been accommodating to people with disabilities over the years happened a few years before he came to work with the temple two years ago. They had a Bar Mitzvah with a student with autism who was non-verbal. Ultimately, they worked with the family to create a beautiful and meaningful Bar Mitzvah experience where the student signed for most of the service while his parents chanted.

Going forward, Midbar Kodesh Temple is excited to do even more to make all community members feel welcome and comfortable through their cohort participation and other efforts. “It’s a one-year program and right now it is very educational for us, but it’s something we’ve been committed to for 23 years and something we’ll continue to work on. It’s not going to stop.”

About the Program 

As USCJ’s CEO Rabbi Steve Wernick says, “Hospitality is temporary. Inclusion is permanent.” To support disability inclusion, USCJ has partnered with the Ruderman Family Foundation, which advocates for and advances the inclusion of people with disabilities in our society. The USCJ Ruderman Inclusion Action Cohort was launched in 2015 to provide consulting services on best practices related to inclusivity to help affiliated synagogues, like Midbar Kodesh Temple, to develop comprehensive visions and action plans around this important synagogue and community issue. To learn more and apply to participate in a cohort, visit here.

6 Tips for Including Everyone in Jewish Life

  1. Ask how people want to be addressed. Many prefer “people first” language such as “a child with autism” rather than “an autistic child.”
  2. Get to know the needs and preferences of your people. Find out what disabilities they face, what challenges those present and how you can ease those.
  3. Ensure everyone can contribute to congregational life in meaningful ways. Invite people with disabilities to serve on committees, volunteer and participate in leadership opportunities.
  4. Rethink accessibility. Are your mezuzot out of reach for people in wheelchairs? Consider placing low mezuzot on all doorposts. Is your bimah accessible by ramp? If not, put a table in the front of your sanctuary for Torah.
  5. Plan special events. Perhaps you can invite a deaf speaker and sign language interpreters to your congregation or feature a film or live performance that includes people with disabilities.
  6. Display clear signage. All signs in your building should point to accessibility features, from elevators to parking to assistive technology.
    * Tips inspired by an article on celebrating Jewish Disability Awareness Month that originally appeared on

Another great idea from one of our region’s synagogues: Start a support group! Sinai Temple has launched one for families of children with special needs to meet, share and learn from each other. Click here to learn more.






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