United Synagogue creates new roles to ‘break down barriers’ for people with disabilities

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United Synagogue creates new roles to ‘break down barriers’ for people with disabilities

The US hires two specialists to provide best practice, inclusion and improved accessibility for an estimated 60,000 members of the community

Jess who Kisharon supports looks forward to using the new Siddur Lakol on Friday night Photo credit Robert Shack
Jess who Kisharon supports looks forward to using the new Siddur Lakol on Friday night Photo credit Robert Shack

The United Synagogue (US) has appointed two specialists to find ways to better include people with disabilities and special needs in its communities. It is estimated that 20 percent of people in the UK have a disability which would equate to about 60,000 members of the Jewish community.

Daniella Neifeld, the United Synagogue’s community participation manager, and Rivka Steinberg, the charity’s lead advocate for additional needs, began their new roles recently.

Daniella’s background is in Jewish education and strategic development. She has worked with Jewish communities across the world including Israel, the USA and Australia.

Rivka spent many years working in scientific research before training as an advisor providing independent legal advice for children with special education needs and disability. She has also worked for voluntary organisations, specialist provisions and local authorities.

Siddur Lakol is the first orthodox prayer book to use the Picture Exchange Communication System specifically for people with disabilities credit Robert Shack

Daniella has begun working on an accessibility inventory of the United Synagogue’s shuls to see where accessibility improvements can be made and to showcase best practice among communities.

Improvements made at US shuls include Woodside Park United Synagogue cheder, which adapted their classroom layout to ensure a pupil with Cerebral Palsy has full access to all the facilities. A new bimah with lower steps and a wider entrance was built by Belmont United Synagogue. Golders Green and Kenton United Synagogues moved their women’s sections downstairs for wheelchair and disability access to shul. Both Barnet and Cockfosters and New Southgate United Synagogues have installed Shabbat lifts.

Pic: Daniella Neifeld

In a statement, the United Synagogue said: “Inclusion must go beyond access to buildings” and it will be working with its communities “to consider how people with neurodivergence can be included”.

A number of its communities are striving to lead the way, with Muswell Hill United Synagogue running informal and abridged services over chagim and on Shabbat including using Makaton (a communication tool to support essential communication skills).

Richmond United Synagogue celebrated a barmitzvah for a boy with severe sensory issues and autism in a way that made him feel included and empowered. Finchley United Synagogue holds a monthly informal ‘Shabbat-style’ service on a Sunday for people with dementia and their families who would be unable to attend shul on Shabbat. Additionally, many US communities use its new accessible prayer book, Siddur Lakol, which was produced in partnership with JWeb and in collaboration with Gesher School and Kisharon.

Pic: Rivka Steinberg

Daniella Neifeld said: “The United Synagogue values creating inclusive spaces for people with a broad range of access needs. To appreciate a community, it is important to appreciate the individuals who make up the community and how to create an environment of belonging.

“It is essential for individuals of different needs, circumstances and outlooks to learn, grow, and give back effectively. I am excited to use my background in strategic development to create strong and impactful change alongside my colleagues at the United Synagogue and community leaders. In due course, our work will also focus on better engaging a wider range of people who feel marginalised in Jewish community life. We know we have a lot to do, but the size and scope of the United Synagogue means we are well-placed to make a meaningful difference.”

New Shabbat lift installed at Cockfosters and New Southgate synagogue in 2023.

Rivka Steinberg said: “My interest in improving the quality of education and health services for children with special education needs and disabilities developed when my eldest daughter was diagnosed with a neurological condition in 2005, a few weeks after she was born.

“I knew then that I had to become a strong advocate for all her additional needs. My personal and professional experiences have seeded a desire and passion to share the knowledge acquired in my own journey and to work closely with community leadership to enable all children and adults to lead a high quality of life, regardless of their additional needs.

“This is all about breaking down barriers so that children and adults with needs are more fully integrated and supported to embody Jewish life in ways that are meaningful to them without feeling compromised. We know we need to invest time and effort in improving inclusion in our communities for children and adults with additional needs. We are delighted to be partnering with Gesher School, a Jewish primary and secondary special school, working closely with their leadership to support us in becoming much more accessible.”

Welcoming the new appointments, the Chief Rabbi said: “I am delighted that the United Synagogue has created these two new roles to better engage people with a wide range of disabilities. Our tradition teaches that the Jewish people are just like a Sefer Torah – a complete and perfect whole. If one single letter is missing, then the entire scroll is not able to be used.

“Similarly with the Jewish people, every single person counts. Our concept of community, within which every single person is valued, underpins our commitment to making everyone feel welcome and included in our synagogues. I wish Daniella and Rivka hatzlacha with their vital work.”

  • The United Synagogue announcement is being made during February’s Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, an initiative which began in the United States to raise awareness and encourage inclusion for people with disabilities and special needs.
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