‘Accessibility for the disabled’ is a need that has special importance for synagogues. All worshippers should have equal opportunities to participate.
The statistics may surprise you. There are over 1.4 million disabled people in Israel, half a million of whom are severely disabled. Such numbers have prompted laws such as the 1998 Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities Act to ensure that disabled people may reach, use and enjoy all public places in a safe, convenient, dignified and independent manner.
Synagogues hold an important place in community life and should also be accessible to anyone wishing to enter and pray. With great experience in synagogue layouts, Lavi Furniture Industries offers planning advice.
The questions to answer
The issue of accessibility for synagogues is particularly complex. Is it obligatory to make every synagogue accessible to the general public in all its facets? Should every worshipper be allowed to fulfill any role during prayer? Is it necessary, according to Halacha, to provide a solution to every situation? What solutions exist today? There are technical and practical ways to meet every need.
First and foremost, access into the synagogue and mobility should be adapted to wheelchair-bound visitors. This means gentle and convenient ramps next to stairs, at least 90 cms of width in seating aisles and easily-opened doors also 90cms wide. If there are glass doors, they should have colored stickers for the visually impaired. There must be good lighting everywhere.
The synagogue should include designated seats for disabled people – at the end of the bench but not necessarily in the last row. To accommodate wheelchairs, some rows should leave a space at the end for them. For example, having a bench with five seats and then a bench with four seats (but including a fifth reading shelf).
Proper planning of the synagogue will allow worshippers in wheelchairs to sit in different areas of the hall. In addition, some of the seats should be ‘extra-sized’ for people with unusual body sizes (such as very tall or large).
Lighting and acoustics
Good lighting inside the synagogue is crucial for visually impaired people to orient themselves and for hearing impaired people to follow the lip movements of preachers and speakers. In addition, having good acoustics makes life much easier for the hard-of-hearing.
The reading stage and bamat cohanim
In these central places, the accepted solution is to add a ramp, which should be permanent and not one brought in from time to time. Although this may add to inconvenience in moving around, the ramp sends an important message that all worshippers have equal access to the stage. Often the ramp is located at the back.
Also Aliyah le Torah and Shatz prayers require prior planning. An adjustable table should be available with a height range of 80-110 cms. This accommodates the different heights customary in Ashkenazi and Sephardi congregations.
Many worshippers want to feel part of the prayer service and one way is by being asked to open the doors to the Holy Ark. Lavi Furniture Industries recommends having a sliding shelf on which the Torah scroll rests. Pulling out the shelf from the cabinet enables the Torah to be removed easily and without any special physical effort.
Other planning aspects include the height of the shelf, the location of the wheelchair in relation to the Ark, the way in which the cabinet is opened and access to the string. the manner in which the ark is opened, the ways of using the handles and the access to the string for the curtains.
Plan your accessible synagogue
Having a synagogue that is accessible to handicapped people is only a question of prior planning and forethought. Any challenge can be met. Make your temple a place that opens its doors to all sectors of the community.