Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

Opening minds, and congregation doors, to the disabled

Synagogues make worship handicapped-accessible

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When Efram Cherrick, 21, from Rockville goes with his family to the Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Potomac, he gets excited.

‘‘He gets up there, he’ll clap his hands and people start clapping. He connects in his way, and I think people are able to get involved,” his mother Debbie Sunshine said. ‘‘He will go up to the front of the congregation and sing and dance and conduct in his own way.”

Sunshine, Cherrick and his father Abe Cherrick have attended Beth Sholom since they moved to the area when Efram Cherrick was a child. His cognitive disability makes him ‘‘pretty nonverbal,” but the congregation welcomes him as ‘‘part of the family” at Beth Sholom, Sunshine said.

Sunshine and Cherrick joined about 350 people last month at a conference at the Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase to talk about Jewish inclusion of people with disabilities. The Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning in Rockville hosted the conference for the fifth year. It was geared toward Jewish leaders in the greater Washington area, from volunteers to rabbis, and people connected with the disabled community.

The conference has grown in popularity, almost doubling its attendance since three years ago.

‘‘We were really trying to find a vehicle that would be helpful in making positive changes in the community in the area of having congregations be more welcoming and more inclusive,” said Lenore Layman, special needs and disability services director at the partnership.

The partnership’s goal was to ‘‘create a culture of inclusiveness” for disabled people and their families — a culture that many synagogues are now adopting, according to Layman.

‘‘There’s been so much in the secular world” that regulates disabled access on a physical level, Layman said.

Layman said the ‘‘culture” of inclusion — how to speak to someone who is disabled, include them and accommodate their needs — is something all houses of worship should work to create.

‘‘A family could come [to Sabbath morning service] once, and a child makes noise and nobody talks to them at all,” Layman said. ‘‘Not necessarily because they’re bothered by the noise, but because they don’t really know how to speak to them. ...They could come over and say, ‘‘We are glad you’re here.’”

Layman said congregations can improve by training their staff, inviting speakers to come talk about disabilities, or adding to their Web sites a welcome message to disabled people and families.

Several congregations in the area have launched committees to promote inclusion of disabled members, including Beth Shalom in Potomac and B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville, Layman said.

Sunshine said Beth Sholom encourages Cherrick to participate in services, to sit wherever he wants to sit, and to take the rabbi’s hand during a service and ask the rabbi to dance or jump with him.

‘‘It is very fulfilling, very gratifying to see that he can feel like he’s part of the community and is welcomed by the community and is loved. As a parent, there probably is no better feeling than that,” Sunshine said.