Eddie Rice well remembers the handful of times he has been called to the bimah for an aliyah. The first was at his bar mitzvah in 1961. Another took place during his wedding aufruf and the most recent took place just a few days ago during Shabbat Itanu.
From 1992 – when post-polio syndrome forced him into a scooter – until recently, he was unable to climb the stairs to the bimah.
In recent years, synagogues across the city have been moving to accommodate people like Rice who live with disabilities. The Beth Tikvah congregation, where Rice davens, recently unveiled a ramp from the floor of the sanctuary to the bimah, enabling disabled Jews to fully participate in shul activities. Other houses of worship have taken steps to make their facilities more accessible as well.
The inauguration of the ramp at Beth Tikvah came slightly before Shabbat Itanu, which ran May 13-14. A project of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, “Itanu Toronto is [an] inclusion initiative” with a focus on “self assessment, outreach, [lectures], sermons, poetry, text study, programming, and more.”
The Shaarei Shomayim synagogue underwent a major renovation about one year ago, during which accessibility was made an important part of the redesign. Visitors to the shul are met at street level with a ramp to bring those in wheelchairs and walkers into the building, while the same renovation included construction of a ramp inside the sanctuary to the bimah. In addition, the shul has introduced an “accessibility Ark” attached to the pulpit to allow people in wheelchairs to open and close the Ark, Rabbi Chaim Strauchler said.
Four years ago, the shul added a Shabbat elevator to provide easy access between the main level and the lower level.
“During renovations, all parts of our congregation recognized that….you can’t just build for the able bodied, but you have to build for everyone,” Rabbi Strauchler said.
Liviya Mendelsohn, the inclusion specialist at federation, runs a working group of 23 synagogues spanning all streams of Judaism.
The organization serves as a clearing house for the exchange of information, including advice about accessing government grants to upgrade older facilities, she said.
In recent years, the Jewish community has become more sensitive to the needs of the disabled. “It’s a reflection of the wider changes in the community, the recognition of diversity and reaching out to those who felt excluded,” Mendelsohn said.
One of the congregations that had a head start in accommodating people with disabilities is the Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue. “[The late] Rabbi Joseph Kelman was a leader in the world of educating for special needs. We started at this shul the Ezra Kadima School” in the 1960s, to provide special needs youngsters with a Jewish education and to prepare them for bar mitzvahs, said Pearl Grundland, the shul’s executive director.
The Kadima Centre, as it is now called, provides educational, social and cultural programming to adults with special needs.
As Shabbat Itanu approached, the synagogue was working on yet another innovation, the installation of a “loop induction system” that would permit people with hearing aids to tune in directly to the feed from the microphone on the bimah.
Retrofitting an existing space to accommodate people in wheelchairs can be a difficult process, said Beth Tikvah president Hershel Guttman. At first it appeared 30 front row seats would have to be removed, but architect Martin Shoom presented a plan for a “compliance alternative” that used less space and still met building code requirements.
Guttman said making changes to accommodate the congregation makes sense. “We’re an aging community and as people age, there will be more and more need for the ramp,” he said.
Altogether the synagogue plans to spend $170,000 over the summer on renovations to make the building more accessible, Guttman added.
Rabbi Strauchler believes accommodating people with special needs goes beyond providing ramps and elevators.
“There is a certain accommodation of the soul as well,” he explained. It is important for the able bodied “to look past the wheelchair and the physical and see the person and value them.”
As for Rice, who serves on the Beth Tikvah accessibility committee, being able to manoeuvre his scooter up to the bimah gives him a feeling of freedom. “Freedom to be able to expand my participation in our society, by removal of barriers,” he said.