In Pandemic’s Wake, Synagogues Address Accessibility


From March to September 2020, Zoom’s revenue skyrocketed by 3,300%, according to a CNN report, and it’s no secret why.

The application became a ubiquitous tool for connection and opened up new possibilities for synagogues to confront and navigate the question of accessibility for disabled congregants and community members.

“During the height of a pandemic, I was largely unable to safely leave my home,” said Rabbi Julia Watts Belser, a professor of Jewish studies and disability studies in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Georgetown University and a wheelchair user. “Yet, in many ways, 2020 felt like the year that I had access to everything.”

Zoom not only allowed for events to have greater audiences, but provided opportunities for those who could not otherwise attend religious events or programs to finally get involved.

For Karly Grossman, a congregant at Kol Tzedek in West Philadelphia and founding member of its Deaf and Disabled Havurah, Zoom finally allowed her to join the synagogue, which was a schlep from her South Jersey home and a risk to attend for someone with a compromised immune system.

As synagogues adjusted to hold services virtually, they recognized the utility of certain tools on the app to better serve disabled community members.

Zoom has closed caption options that allow for live captioning; options to “pin” multiple people’s videos, allowing for American Sign Language interpreters to appear next to whoever is speaking; screen sharing provides opportunities for congregants to view larger texts. Many of these changes are thanks to organizations such as the Jewish Deaf Resource Center, who have provided ways for these apps to express user needs, JDRC President Susan Cohen wrote in an email.

For all its new tools, Zoom is by no means a skeleton key for accessibility.

“Zoom does not solve every accessibility challenge,” Grossman said.

Transcriptions and closed captions are not always accurate, Cohen wrote. Even live transcriptions are not 100% accurate and often lag a few seconds behind what the speaker is saying.

Captioning services are particularly inaccurate at processing Hebrew, and for Hebrew to be transcribed into accurate transliteration, synagogues must consistently hire live interpreters.

Rabbi Julia Watts Belser is a professor of Jewish studies and disability studies in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Georgetown University. | Courtesy of Julia Watts Belser

This financial barrier, more broadly, is a factor for synagogues choosing not to address access needs more broadly. 

“When access requires financial outlay, that’s when we’re really putting our values to the test,” Belser said. “It’s really crucial for Jewish communities to budget for access at the very outset.”

Fortified by the Jewish concept of tzedek, tzedek tirdof — justice, justice, we shall pursue — synagogues must prioritize accessibility, Belser argued. She compares disability justice in synagogues to kosher foods.

“Not everyone in all Jewish communities requires kosher food in order to be able to eat at an event,” Belser said. “But many Jewish communities have recognized kashrut as an important Jewish value, and consequently commit to providing it. And that’s how I feel about access.”

Grossman helped create Kol Tzedek’s Deaf and Disabled Havurah to build a community specifically for disabled people, but the havurah has worked with the clergy to plan logistics for coming events. Grossman believes it is a must for “accessibility and inclusion [to be] baked in from the beginning.”

As synagogues begin to transition from online to in-person services that are livestreamed on Zoom, inclusion can be as simple as clergy acknowledging those attending the service from Zoom or Facebook Live, Belser said. When clergy are saying the names of those who have died or are in need of healing, they can make sure to also read the names congregants write into the Zoom chat box.

Carly Goldberg of Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley is the co-chair of the synagogue’s inclusivity committee, which helps the synagogue address accessibility in a similar capacity. Goldberg has myalgic encephalomyelitis, a chronic neurological illness that results in fatigue and brain fog; it usually has a post-viral onset, making it a complication for some of those who experience “long COVID.”

Beyond finding ways to help disabled congregants feel more included, Goldberg, similar to Grossman, wants to make sure inclusivity becomes part of a greater framework for justice, what she calls an “ecosystem of inclusivity.”

“Everyone at some point in their lives is going to be disabled,” Goldberg said. 

Accessibility is not just about making those who are disabled feel included, it is about making sure everyone in the community has a profound sense of belonging. Moreover, when synagogues consider the needs of disabled congregants, they improve the quality of a synagogue’s spiritual experience for everyone.

“It’s not a charity that a community does to make itself available to these other people,” Grossman said. “These are people that bring value to the community.”

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