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The Israeli Journal of Occupation Therapy, February 2014, 23(1)
As the Gates of Prayer Open, Does
the Sanctuary Enable Universal
Sarah Margolis
Sarah Margolis, BSc, BOT, Independent Accessibility Consultant, Access for All,
Israel. sarah@accessforall.co.il
Sarah Margolis is a Canadian trained occupational therapist and an Israeli based
service expert accessibility consultant. She now lives in Israel and has completed
many accessibility projects with architects and engineers relating to buildings and
businesses. She combines the eld of occupational therapy and accessibility as she
contributes her knowledge and practice to the growing eld of accessibility and
universal design.
Key Words: Religious practice, religious institution, accessibility, prayer, equal
rights, disability
This article depicts the world of synagogues from an accessibility point of
view. Full participation in daily and weekly synagogue life not only involves
physical mobility within the facility, but involves sensory and cognitive
participation for daily synagogue services. Synagogues have been renovated
to include ramps, extra seating, special lighting, and accessible bathrooms.
However, many synagogues neglect to address the needs of individuals with
sensory and mental health impairments. An organization named Maaglei
Tzedek, conducted a survey of 250 synagogues in 2013, to assess the extent
to which facilities offer accessibility features. According to this survey only
eight had prayers books with Braille. Moreover, several synagogues listed
as accessible had bathrooms that were inaccessible to the average user.
Additionally, synagogues equipped with accessible bathrooms neglected to
offer access to these bathrooms in the woman's section. The role of both the
occupational therapist and the accessibility consultant are pivotal within the latter
eld. Occupational therapy modules are used to recommend the appropriately
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The Israeli Journal of Occupation Therapy, February 2014, 23(1)
Sarah Margolis
Synagogue Access: Making prayer
Daily synagogue life involves ritual,
religious practice, social gatherings,
and Torah learning. The synagogue
represents a place of social unity
for a community, allowing one to
participate in all life cycle and
religious events. For an individual
with disabilities, accessing all services
and functions within a synagogue
requires environmental adaptation and
procedural change. Most importantly,
no shame should ever be brought to
an individual Jew with a disability,
due to his/her disability. Full
accommodation of special needs
prevents individual embarrassment,
promotes universal participation of all
community members, and prevents
potential law suits due to unethical
situations (Yalon-Chamovitz, 2006).
According to a 2013 survey
conducted by Maaglei Tzedek of
250 Israeli synagogues, 10% were
equipped with ramps, accessible
bathrooms and elevators, in addition
to acoustic reduction (Access for All,
n.d.). Many buildings have installed
appropriate signage, flooring and
lighting throughout the facility.
However, according to recent Israeli
law, facilities still need to be equipped
with assistive devices and to
implement procedural changes into
daily services to better serve the
needs of individuals with disabilities.
Additionally, all synagogues that are
listed as accessible must regularly
check their facilities to ensure that
the accessibility features offered are
up-to-date, accessible, and user
friendly by all community members
(Draft of Service Accessibility,
In accordance with the law of equal
rights for individuals with disabilities
(1998) all individuals should have
access to the main synagogue
regardless of ability or disability
(Equal Rights for Individuals with
Disabilities Law, 1998). Following
the laws passed in 2005, 2008 and
most recently in 2013, the standards
of accessibility have grown to
encompass procedural changes during
services, and assistive devices offered
within the main sanctuary. The
Israeli law recognizes two specic
categories of accessibility consulting:
structural and service. The former
addresses all the physical aspects of
building (parking, doorways, ramps,
bathrooms, elevators and stairs), while
use of assistive devices and procedural changes within a synagogue.
Accessibility consulting can provide practical recommendations for each
facility to be built under the rubric of "design for all" principles. This article
will provide a detailed view of how a synagogue can be made accessible in
accordance with accessibility law and practice.
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The Israeli Journal of Occupation Therapy, February 2014, 23(1)
the latter addresses services offered
within each facility (signage, lighting,
procedures, assistive devices and
equipment). An accessibility consultant
assesses existing accessibility features
and recommends changes for
improvement. With respect to a
synagogue, a structural accessibility
consultant recommends changes for
widened doors, ramps, seating, and
elevators, while a service expert
recommends assistive devices,
procedural changes, special seating,
lighting, and prayers books designed
for individuals with special needs
(Draft of Service Accessibility, 2013).
Synagogue participation: From
internet access to leading services
Online information. If the
synagogue has its own website, it
should be accessible and provide
features such as enlarged font, arrows
pointing to relevant links, and visible
print for all the information provided
within. There should be a link entitled
"accessible features of synagogue",
whereby all accessible features of
the facility are outlined for the
viewer. In order to ensure efciency,
these features must be updated
regularly. There should also be
information that directs the viewer
to an appropriate contact person who
can answer additional questions,
prior to the viewer's arrival at the
synagogue. In the section that lists
daily service times, each time
should be highlighted and enlarged
in bold print (Access for All, n.d.).
According to the 'Accessible Service'
regulations (2013) there should be a
person whose role is to ensure that
the website follows the guidelines for
accessible internet set by the Web
Accessibility Initiative (W3C). The
regulations determine that by 2015
all internet sites should be accessible
at level 2.0 (www.w3c.org.il;
Entry way and parking. By law,
accessible parking should be located
near the main entrance, with visible
signage. All entrances must be
equipped with an obstacle free
ramp and sufcient lighting at all
times. Since services are often held
at night, entry and exit to and from
the building must be obstacle free.
A ramp should be installed with an
incline of no more than 6%. From the
accessible parking area, there must
be a clear path that leads directly to
the main accessible entrance. There
should be ample signage on the
front entrance indicating in large
accessible font times of services, in
addition to the contact numbers of
the ofce management. At the main
entrance an automatic door that is 75
cm wide should be installed to allow
for easy entry. Typically a mezuzah
can be found at the entrance of each
doorway. It is recommended that each
mezuzah be placed at an accessible
height, which was determined to be
140 cm high (Access for All, n.d).
As the Gates of Prayer Open, Does the Sanctuary Enable Universal Access?
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The Israeli Journal of Occupation Therapy, February 2014, 23(1)
toilet in the case of emergencies.
Easily maneuverable faucets should
also be installed. Automatic faucets
would cause too much of a problem
regarding their usage on the Sabbath,
and are not an ideal modication.
Wall mounted soap dispensers are
useful assistive devices that can be
added to accessible bathrooms. The
lighting within the bathroom should
have accessible switches that can be
operated by a wheelchair user (Access
for All, n.d). Additionally, bathroom
facilities must be checked on a
regular basis to ensure that they are
hygienic, clean, and accessible to all
community members. Any concern
that arises should immediately
be addressed by the synagogue
management (Shamberg & Barr,
Main sanctuary. In order to
ensure maximal participation of all
community members, the main
sanctuary (where the prayer is
conducted) must be comprehensively
accessible. Moreover, procedural
changes should be implemented into
the daily service prayer. There should
be additional seats designated for
those in a wheelchair, a ramp leading
to the main podium, and ample
lighting throughout. A rabbi or cantor
typically conducts his sermons and
leads prayers from the main central
podium. Any individual who follows
the rabbi or cantor by lip reading
must have the ability to get a clear,
unobstructed view of the podium
Signage and lighting. There should
be ample signage and lighting
throughout the entire building. Upon
entry, there should be a visual sign in
Braille in addition to arrows pointing
to the bathrooms, main sanctuary,
stairs, elevators, beit midrash (Torah
learning room), the woman's section
(often located at a level above the main
sanctuary, as required. Additionally
all light switches should be accessible
to wheelchair users. Should the
sanctuary have large windows, a
non-glare surface or lter should be
applied to them in order to block out
the glaring effect of the sun during the
morning hours (Yalon-Chamovitz,
Bathrooms. Fully accessible
bathrooms should be located on the
same oor as the main sanctuary,
as well as on the oor where the
woman's section is located. There
should be complete access to the main
entrance of each bathroom on each
oor with no barriers limiting entry.
Doors leading into the accessible
bathrooms should be wide enough
to accommodate a wheelchair user
(no less than 75 cm). Each bathroom
should abide to the prescribed code
(166 cm X 136 cm), and have an
accessible sink at a height of 85 cm.
In addition, the bathrooms should be
equipped with a lowered toilet with
an enhanced seat, grab bars on each
side of the toilet (preferably an L
shaped grab bar), an angled mirror,
and an emergency button next to
Sarah Margolis
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The Israeli Journal of Occupation Therapy, February 2014, 23(1)
from the surrounding seats. Moreover
this podium should be at a lowered
height with an open area beneath for
a wheelchair user. There should be a
reduction of acoustic sounds within
the main sanctuary that ensures
hearing on all levels. A recommended
sound system that blocks acoustic
sounds can be installed. Moreover,
mobile furniture such as mobile
benches and stands are necessary
(Yalon-Chamovitz, 2006).
Useful assistive devices to be
provided include: enlarged prayer
books and Torah books, tactile page
indicators, and an enhanced sound
system that ensures maximal hearing. It
is recommended to provide individual
stands next to assigned placement for
the main leader of the prayer service.
This can provide the opportunity for
people to place relevant items near
them so that they know they have
somewhere to place such items during
prayer service (Shamberg & Barr,
2006). The latter recommendations
apply to any social events that take
place within the facility; either in a
social hall, or a room designated for a
life cycle event (i.e., brit milah, bar
mitzvah, wedding, etc).
Procedural changes. During the
course of the services, pages of
prayer should be announced on a
regular basis, so that any person with
a memory or orientation impairment
will be able to follow the services
without difculty. Individuals who
regularly attend the synagogue should
be assigned to assist those with special
needs before, during, and after prayer
(perhaps a buddy system can be
established with regular community
members). All announcements should
be made clearly, and repeated if
need be. Individuals with special
needs should be escorted out of the
main sanctuary prior to the throng
of congregants who will be exiting
the building en mass following the
services. Moreover, if the individuals
are able and willing, they should be
included in the services and allowed
to lead services, read from Torah,
or perhaps make announcements
according to their desire and abilities
(Draft of Service Accessibility
Regulations, 2013).
Synagogue attendance and
participation requires ample support and
modications for those congregants
who must contend with disabilities.
In order to ensure the maximal
participation of community members,
modifications should be made so
that these individuals can access
these facilities with ease and
comfort. Currently, only 10% of
Israeli synagogues are moderately
accessible, however, a broader range
of individuals with disabilities can
be accommodated through additional
modications. With more research and
accessibility consultation, facilities can
be renovated, and procedural changes
can be implemented to create barrier-
As the Gates of Prayer Open, Does the Sanctuary Enable Universal Access?
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The Israeli Journal of Occupation Therapy, February 2014, 23(1)
free environments. Occupational
therapists can play a pivotal role
in implementing the principles of
universal design to the building and
management of each synagogue.
Through such changes, Jewish
religious practice can be accessed
with greater ease and comfort for all
community members, regardless of
ability or disability.
Access for All:
Israeli non-profit
organization conducting research
and assessment on the accessibility
of Israeli services. Retrieved from
Access for All: Israeli non-profit
organization conducting research
and assessment on the accessibility
of Israeli services. Retrieved from
Israeli Ministry of Justice (1998).
Equal Rights for Individuals with
Disabilities Law. Retrieved from
Israeli Ministry of Justice (2011).
Equal rights for individuals with
disabilities regulations- Accessibility
in existing buildings and facilities.
Retrieved from http://www.
Israeli Ministry of Justice (2013).
Equal rights for individuals
with disabilities regulations -
Service accessibility. Religious
services, chapter 15 (draft).
Retrieved from http://www.
Maaglei Tzedek: A non prot social
activist organization. Retrieved
from http://www.ynet.co.il/
Shamberg, S., & Barr, A. (2006).
Access for all: Access to prayer
and ritual. Israeli Journal of
Occupational Therapy, 15, 69-89.
Web Content Accessibility, 11
December 2008, Retrieved from
Yalon-Chamovitz, S. (2006). Health
held a platform in a synagogue:
Social and esthetic assessment.
Matter of Attitude, 4, 42-44.
Sarah Margolis