Inclusion at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda means more than welcoming someone with a disability. All year long, members make sure each congregant’s needs are considered.
“This congregation is not just about going to services. It’s about making community,” explained Susan Kimmel, the synagogue’s inclusion advisory chair.
Written on the invitation to every Adat Shalom event, whether it is at the synagogue or at someone’s home, is information about whether there are entryway steps or narrow hallways — information that a person who must consider mobility would want to know.
In the building, near the restroom, a low tallit rack can accommodate a person using a wheelchair. And there are two mezuzot at different heights at the entryway, to make it easier for anyone to can kiss it, regardless of their height.
For those who become uncomfortable when there is too much noise or stress, a quiet room offers a glassed-in view of the main sanctuary. Kimmel said that the room comes in handy during raucous megillah readings on Purim. Congregants can still hear the reading, but without loud noise.
At Adat Shalom, it is not enough for a member to see that someone needs help opening a door or sitting down, she said. It is everyone’s job to understand the needs of their fellow congregants and make sure they feel welcome and included.
Outside, the playground equipment has been adapted for one of the religious school’s students, who is a little person.
In the sanctuary, moveable seats enable someone in a wheelchair to sit anywhere they choose, rather than be stuck in the back or in an aisle, Kimmel said.
During Sukkot, when synagogue members help make a home handicap accessible, there are always jobs available for volunteers who can’t do heavy lifting.
But the synagogue takes particular pride in its Torah reading table extension for those using wheelchairs and little people.
Congregant Steve Shafer, who built the reading table many years ago, added “a complicated and beautiful” extension about a year ago, said Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb.
“It is a great example of where two kinds of sacredness meet,” he said. “There is the sacred inclusion of every one of God’s children and the inherited sacredness of a tradition that always bids us to be conscious of others and their divine uniqueness.”
Like many synagogues, Adat Shalom offers large print books, a hearing loop, curb cuts and ADA-compliant entryways. There are book stands to support heavy prayer books, live streaming from the sanctuary and library, Braille prayer books and page magnifiers.
Making those with handicaps feel welcome is as important as including Jews of color, Jews of an impoverished background and Jews who have made choices outside of the mainstream,” Dobb said.
“We are inviting everyone, collectively reshaping what community looks like with all these voices in the mix.”
Dobb also connected the need for inclusion with the need to fight climate change, noting that those with health problems and limited mobility will have the hardest time getting out of danger.
Suzanne Pollak is a Washington-area writer.