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Connecticut synagogues make worship more accessible

Beth El Temple

Beth El Temple

By Cindy Mindell

WEST HARTFORD – Last month, Beth El Temple in

West Hartford became the new regular meeting site of the Connecticut Council on Developmental Disabilities (CTCDD).

The state-appointed council is one of 55 throughout the U.S., created as a result of the Developmental Disabilities Services and Facilities Construction Amendments (DD Act), passed by Congress in 1970 and requiring states to establish State Planning and Advisory Councils. CTCDD was established a year later.

The “DD Councils” work to enhance the lives of people with disabilities, promoting education for children, meaningful work for adults, community living for all people with disabilities, and self-advocacy by people with disabilities and their parents.

Congress again moved to increase access for all in 1990, with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits commercial facilities, public accommodations, transportation services, and employers from discriminating against individuals on the basis of physical or mental disability. The law mandates that “no individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation.”

Religious organizations and houses of worship are exempt from the ADA’s equal-access provisions and are not required to remove barriers to access or modify an existing structure.

Beth El was selected as a meeting site partly because of its ongoing initiative to create an accessible and inclusive facility. The sanctuary is equipped with a ramp to the bimah and special railings. This year, on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary, the temple installed railings in the building’s main hallway and a handicap-accessible elevator, and renovated restrooms for accessibility.

The 2000 Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act extended and reauthorized the DD Act through 2007 (currently awaiting reauthorization). The new law required the membership of State Councils to be at least 60 percent individuals with developmental disabilities or their family members.

“Form and function come together here,” says Rabbi Jim Rosen of Beth El Temple, who is also a CTCDD member. “A large percentage of the council are individuals with various disabilities, and one of the key staff-people uses a wheelchair and speaks with assistance.”

CTCDD currently comprises 23 members, all appointed by the governor. Through outreach and education, the council helps government agencies, private companies, and non-profit organizations create and fund programs and resources for people with disabilities. The council is approached with interesting and creative initiatives, Rosen says, such as municipalities’ plans to assist people with disabilities in the aftermath of a future storm like Sandy.

Since the late ‘90s, Beth El has hosted regular services and programming for the Jewish Association for Communal Living in West Hartford. The religious school teaches and supports children with special needs, many of whom celebrate their b’nai mitzvah with the congregation.

Like Beth El, synagogues throughout Connecticut have modernized their facilities and programming to accommodate people with disabilities and special needs. “CTCDD does a lot of outreach to various parts of the community to see what their efforts are and how we can be of help,” Rosen says. “Even though religious organizations are exempt from the ADA provisions, many are doing what’s possible to make changes to their buildings for access.”

Temple Sholom in Greenwich installed a hearing-amplification system in the sanctuary, as well as a railing along the stairs leading up to the bimah and a portable, adjustable Torah table on wheels to accommodate a Torah reader unable to stand. A dedicated staff-member works with religious-school students with special needs.

Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport renovated its 55-year-old building for complete accessibility, adding a hearing-amplification system in the sanctuary, lowering the bimah and adding a ramp, and installing a new elevator that enables access to the second floor of the religious school to accomodate children with disabilities or temporary injuries. The changes to B’nai Israel’s physical presence made an enormous spiritual difference.

“One of the highlights for me was on the Rosh Hashanah immediately following the renovation [about five years ago], to be able to invite one of our congregants, a young woman with MS who uses a wheelchair, to come forward to receive a Torah scroll and lead the hakafah [Torah procession] throughout the congregation,” says B’nai Israel’s spiritual leader, Rabbi James Prosnit. “Similarly, it is now possible for us to have frail and elderly grandparents ascend the bimah for aliyot at their grandchildren’s b’nai mitzvah – very powerful and meaningful.”

CTCDD meets at Beth El Temple, 2626 Albany Ave., West Hartford every other month; meetings are open to the public. For more information call (860) 233-9696.

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