Since the 1980s the First Narayever Congregation has defined itself as “traditional-egalitarian”. By this term, we have meant that at the core of the FNC is abiding by Halachic practice, while at the same time being willing to depart from established practice in order to include groups which have not previously been treated equally in the Jewish world. In the 1980s, that meant women. More recently, it came to mean members of the LGBTQ community.
Currently, the FNC is considering how it can remove barriers to physical participation in services and activities, as a means to include persons and groups with varying accessibility needs.
The principle of consideration for those with special needs has been long rooted in the Jewish tradition. This is evident in passages like the one from Leviticus: “you shall not insult the deaf nor place a stumbling block before the blind” (Lev.19:14). Many biblical heroes experienced physical challenges: Sarah was barren, Isaac was blind, Jacob had a limp, Moses was a stutterer, Saul suffered from debilitating depression. Still, they were full participants in their communities.
On occasion, a tension arises between established Halachic practice and the need to provide full access to our structure and activities. In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that legal, societal, and attitudinal changes within our congregation might require us to make thoughtful exceptions to established Halachic practice in order to accommodate congregants’ and visitors’ needs on this front. We want to be able to do this in a measured way while still remaining true to our identity as a “traditional” community.
Currently our synagogue is attempting to balance these principles on several fronts, including matters such as installing an elevator, addressing the needs of people living with hearing impairment, easing the weight of the front door, and wheelchair accessibility in the sanctuary.
It is anticipated that the matter of balancing accessibility and Halachic practices will be continually on our agenda in future years. The Ritual Committee proposes that as specific issues emerge regarding balancing Halachic practices with accessibility needs, the following considerations be used in our communal decision making process.
We recognize that:
- As a community we are treading into new territory and have the responsibility to do so with courage, thoughtfulness, reason, dialogue, and an open mind.
- Our identity as a traditional congregation is expressed in every facet of our structure and activities. It is incumbent upon us to ensure that the sum total of changes we make in the service of accessibility do not amount to endangering the traditional nature, feel and image of the FNC.
- We abide by established Halachic practice whenever possible—we look first to solutions within the halachic framework.
- When we deviate from Halachic practice, we endeavor to take the course of action that least transgresses or appears to transgress these traditions.
- We consider accessibility-driven initiatives on their own merit as well as the cumulative effect they may have on the character of our shul and its people.
- We make choices that maximize the sense of belonging for those who will be using the equipment/processes and minimize the potential for such persons to experience a sense of “otherness”.
- We select methods of providing accessibility that, to the extent possible, minimize the prominence or visibility of the equipment or mechanisms used.
- In our process of deliberation we take into account practical limitations such as (but not limited to) financial implications and levels of anticipated usage.
In dealing with accessibility issues the Board will use the following approach and apply all or part of the following elements:
- The Board consults with the Ritual Committee and the Rabbi on matters which relate to halachic practice in the shul and which affect the FNC’s traditional nature before making its decisions. Committees of the Board will consult with the Ritual Committee and the rabbi on any matters affecting halachic practice.
- Persons or groups who might be impacted directly by accessibility-focused decisions will be consulted in order to obtain their perspective, as appropriate. The Ritual Committee, or other congregant/s or committee/s involved in a particular accessibility issue, considers solutions and practices employed by other relevant congregations before a decision to deviate from normative halachic practice is taken.
- Our decision making process is transparent, on both the committee level and the Board level.
- When appropriate, the Board consults the congregation as a whole.
- The decision, along with the rationale and process that led to it, are communicated to the full congregation in a timely and prominent fashion by the Board and any or all of: the Ritual Committee chair, other committee chairs as relevant, and/or the rabbi.