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How to Build an Accessible Synagogue

Ensuring that everyone who wants to go to synagogue can actually get into the building.

In recent years, as synagogues have been adapting Judaism’s male-dominated, heteronormative traditions to include women and queer people, many have been also working to include people with disabilities. This work-in-progress begins—but doesn’t end—with ensuring that everyone who wants to go to synagogue can actually get into the building.

Accessibility is a step towards belonging, people told me: “Everybody who wants to be part of the community should have that opportunity. And it’s important for us to make people feel included,” said Rabbi Laurence Sebert, of Manhattan’s Town & Village Synagogue. “Everyone, whatever abilities they have.”

This was a common refrain. “For me, it’s both as simple and as complicated as saying, ultimately, each person I’ve ever encountered…is looking for a place of belonging,” said Rabbi Ben Spratt, of Congregation Rodeph Sholom, also in Manhattan. The need for belonging is universal, in other words but what satisfies that need may be particular.

Take Martin Greenberg, a DeafBlind man, originally from New York, who moved to Hartford during the pandemic but travels to NYC frequently to visit friends and go to synagogue. Greenberg goes to temple in part to “see”—Greenberg’s word—people he knows. Before Covid, that was relatively easy, Greenberg said through interpreter Erin (provided by Lilith). “There were so many Deaf people that came to services, we all would come and go together, it felt really great,” Greenberg said. It’s harder now. “Most of the time, I feel like I’m going alone. I feel like I’m the only DeafBlind person who’s going.”

What really gives Greenberg a sense of belonging in a synagogue is being there around other Deaf and DeafBlind people, he said. He added in a follow-up email that only with an interpreter present would he “feel comfortable in a synagogue.” Greenberg has gone to shul with hearing friends in the past, but without an interpreter—and without prayer books in braille—he felt “stuck.” In order for Greenberg to find his place of belonging in a synagogue, that synagogue needs to be accessible to—and therefore attract—Deaf and DeafBlind people. For Greenberg, accessibility is a precursor to a sense of belonging.

Here are some guidelines to what congregants with a variety of disabilities or differences may need to participate in services. All of us can notice when fellow congregants are not getting what they need and make changes so that everyone feels welcome.

How To Make A Synagogue Accessible to People Who…


Use common sense and kindness. “A lot of those accessibility issues come down to the attitude of the congregants,” said Jake Stimell, the Disability Training & Consulting Bureau Associate at RespectAbility. Stimell, who lives in New York City, has an unspecified neuromuscular disability. He can’t sit indefinitely and needs to stand when his body tells him to. “The last thing you want is for people to be staring at you,” Stimell said.

Encourage masking, buy air filters, and be transmission-conscious. Plan your disease prevention strategies to protect those at highest risk for Covid and other transmissible diseases. That will make the synagogue safe for everyone.

Offer accommodations, publicly and routinely. When a synagogue, for instance, has a basket of fidget tools available for people with sensory regulation issues and lets everyone know about it, “it makes a huge statement, to the entire congregation, to people with disabilities, specifically, that people are really welcome in this space,“ said Meredith Polsky of Matan, an organization that trains Jewish leaders and educators on these issues.

Polsky recommends including a line stating that the congregation wants its programming to be accessible to everyone, along with details on whom to contact to request accommodations, in all written materials. “A lot of people aren’t even going to notice that,” Polsky said. “But [to] the people…who might need an accommodation, it means everything.”


Make your facilities wheelchair accessible. If the synagogue entrance has stairs, wheelchair users and others with mobility impairments need a ramp or elevator. An accessible entrance should be clearly labeled, with signs leading to it.

Inside the sanctuary wheelchair users should be able to navigate easily wherever they go and to sit in their wheelchairs if they choose—not on the sidelines. For wheelchair users to access the bimah and the ark, there need to be ramps or lifts there, too.

When it comes time for prayers, instead of “please rise,” clergy should say something that includes people who are unable to stand, such as “please rise if you are able,” “please rise in body or in spirit,” or “please rise however you are able.”

Provide seating at social events, such as at the kiddush following services, so that people who cannot stand or aren’t comfortable standing are not isolated.

I visited Congregation Rodeph Sholom (Reform, Manhattan) which is fully accessible by elevator and has a lift to the bimah. At Sutton Place Synagogue (Conservative, Manhattan), which I also visited, the entrance is level with the sidewalk. Inside, the ark and the bimah are accessible by ramp, and the table where the Torah is read can be adjusted so that a wheelchair user can read from there.

Have large-print and braille prayer books waiting for attendees who may need them. JBI International, formerly known as The Jewish Braille Institute, provides large- print, braille, and audio versions of prayer books and other materials of Jewish interest at no charge to blind and low-vision people, and to those who are print-disabled (unable to use a printed book for any reason, including inability to hold a book). Another source of braille and large-print Jewish texts is CSB CARE, or Computer Services for the Blind.

Large-print and braille prayer books offer access not just to the words themselves but to physical books, which are traditionally important to Jews, said Livia Thompson, JBI’s Executive Director. “There is that physical resonance to prayer books, and to holding prayer books, and to feeling the weight of the words,” she said. Words are especially weighty in braille! A braille prayer book will be in several volumes, while a braille Chumash (the book version of the Torah that you may see in synagogue pews) may be 24 volumes, Thompson said.

Another option is to access Jewish texts through a computerized tablet and a braille display. A synagogue could have tablets available and loaded up with prayer books before services, noted rabbinical student Gabrielle Cohn, who is legally blind and who will be ordained from New York’s Hebrew Union College in May. Congregants who need large print can adjust the font size as needed, while congregants who need braille can access that by connecting the tablet to a braille display.

On Shabbat or a holiday, many Jews may not want to rely on electronic devices. And some just prefer books. “I’m 71 years old. I’m old-fashioned,” Greenberg said through Erin. He added by email that another reason for a synagogue to offer braille prayer books is that it might make blind and DeafBlind people feel more welcome. Nobody I spoke with had an example of a synagogue they felt was exemplary in its accessibility to blind people.


Once again, offer accommodations. “While we all have the best intentions, when we overlook letting the public know that requests for interpreters or live captioning are welcome, we are implicitly announcing that Jews who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing are not welcome in our Jewish gathering places,” Susan Cohen, President of the Jewish Deaf Resource Center (JDRC), told Lilith by email. Congregants know what they need; all a synagogue needs to do is ask.

To participate in services, Deaf or hard-of-hearing congregants need “communication bridges,” which run in two directions, Cohen explained. A Deaf person may request an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. On the other hand, if a Deaf person is called to the bimah, an ASL interpreter may “voice” the Deaf congregant’s ASL into spoken language. “In this situation it’s the congregation that needs the interpreter,” Cohen noted.

A congregant who is DeafBlind, like Martin Greenberg, may request a tactile ASL (TASL) interpreter to do what’s sometimes called hand-over-hand signing: the DeafBlind person places their hands on top of the tactile interpreter’s hands and feels what the interpreter is saying. Greenberg prefers working with a Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI), which is an interpreter who is Deaf or hard of hearing and certified by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. At an ASL-interpreted service, a CDI working with Greenberg would sit next to him, watch the ASL interpreters up front, and interpret the ASL into TASL. “We have more Deaf connection, with them having the lived experience of being Deaf,” Greenberg said of CDIs.

A hard-of-hearing person may request captioning of the service, or an assistive listening system, such as a hearing loop system, which transmits amplified sound to hearing aids and cochlear implants that have telecoils (T coils). People without hearing aids can connect to the hearing loop through headphone-like devices that the synagogue provides..

Some New York City synagogues are paving the way. In December 2023, Town & Village Synagogue celebrated its 18th anniversary of holding monthly ASL-interpreted Saturday morning services. They also provide ASL interpretation for holiday services. ASL interpretation for other services is available by advance request. Rodeph Sholom offers monthly ASL-interpreted Friday evening services. They also have an ASL choir: All choir participants sign prayers in ASL, and some also sing along orally. During all services in the main sanctuary, the text of the prayers is projected onto the synagogue wall in Hebrew, transliterated Hebrew, and an English translation. CRS also has a hearing loop system.

On the second Friday of each month, the ASL Shabbat Coalition hosts services on Zoom conducted in ASL, with captions and voice interpretation. And the Shabbaton DeafBlind Retreat, in Baltimore, Maryland, is a fully accessible Shabbat experience for DeafBlind people.


The inclusivity organization Matan suggests having a sensory cart available with items that can help people regulate sensory input, such as fidget tools and noise-canceling headphones. Matan also suggests having a quiet room where people can go if they need a break during services. Many airports now have these rooms. Streaming the service into the quiet room ensures that people don’t miss anything.

For Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah, Purim, and Passover, Rodeph Sholom has services designed to be accessible to people with autism spectrum disorder and with other disabilities. Before each service, the synagogue sends out a “social story” describing what will happen during the service. No part of the service lasts longer than four minutes. There are designated people available to answer questions, there’s food and drink available, and there is a quiet room. These services are also ASL-interpreted.

Rodeph Sholom also has a b’nei mitzvah program through which each child with special needs learns to connect with Torah in a way that works for them.

How accessible is your synagogue? Take this 10-question Google Forms quiz from Matan to find out:

Ashley P. Taylor is a journalist and writer in Brooklyn, New York, who has lived with disability since birth. Find more of her work at