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Itongadol.- Going to shul on Shabbat is something most religious Jews take for granted, but how many synagogues – in Israel or the Diaspora – are just as accessible to those with physical disabilities?

This weekend, the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization will be hosting the first ever “Accessibility Shabbat” in communities across Israel, to highlight that very issue.

The program is designed to highlight the need for greater respect for the handicapped and disabled within the religious community and Israeli society in general. The initiative was launched by prominent religious-Zionist Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, the Chair of the Tzohar Committed on Jewish Ethics and one of Israel’s leading thinkers on Ethics in Religious Society.

Accessibility Shabbat is being held in coordination with the International Accessibility Day, which is taking place worldwide today, December 3rd.

"The reality is that the specific challenges posed by the handicapped are all too often overlooked within our religious community and many of our synagogues and community facilities are not made amenable to the needs of this population,” Rabbi Cherlow said in a letter announcing the initiative.

“This cannot be the Jewish way of doing things and we must re-examine our approach and make our facilities and communities more accommodating in every possible way.”

Accessibility Shabbat is composed of multiple components, including educational elements as well as proactive initiatives intended to enact practical approaches to benefit the handicapped.

Via the organization’s website and its network of community rabbis across Israel, Tzohar has distributed educational materials stressing approaches to the disabled in the Jewish sources which community members will be encouraged to learn over the Shabbat.

But it\’s not just awareness and sensitivity that\’s needed. Synagogues should all be taking concrete steps to make their premises and services more accessible to physically-handicapped congregants, Rabbi Cherlow says.

That could include anything from installing wheelchair ramps, to providing prayer books and study materials for the blind and sight-impaired, as well as relevant accommodations for the deaf.

The problem, Rabbi Cherlow explained, is that while most Jews do genuinely feel sympathy towards those with disabilities, more often than not they fail to grasp the many challenges they face just to attend synagogue, and therefore fail to take action to address those obstacles.

“Fundamentally, even while we know that we need to pay attention to caring about the handicapped community, we often fail to take the next step to seeing exactly what we can do to be more inclusive and compassionate,” he noted. “This Shabbat will give us that opportunity and hopefully encourage an ongoing dialogue on this topic.”

As part of its efforts, Tzohar is encouraging synagogues to allot a specific budget for the needs of the handicapped with the goal of making as many religious facilities as possible as accessible as possible.

Rabbi David Stav, Founder and President of Tzohar, said that beyond the immediate objective of helping disabled community members, the goal of the program is to remind every Jew to be more cognizant of the needs of others.

“Compassion for those less fortunate than others is an inherently Jewish value, but at times we need to be reminded of specific ways to take that understanding and put it into practical terms,” he stated.

According to Tzohar Executive Vice President Yakov Gaon, while the program is currently being launched in Israel alone, plans are already being put in place to take the initiative globally in coming years.

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