BALTIMORE — The first time Rabbi Joanne Yocheved Heiligman attended a service at Shalom Aleichem, a synagogue in Columbia, her three young children were on their absolute worst behavior.

Her children, ages 3, 5, and 7, and all on the autism spectrum, sprinted around the synagogue, pulling the slats out of the vertical blinds and leaving their mother feeling embarrassed.

Heiligman couldn’t leave fast enough. But a few weeks later, she got a call from Shalom Aleichem’s president, who asked her if she’d like to interview to be the synagogue’s rabbi. She was shocked. The congregation hadn’t rejected her family after all, she realized. Rather, she had been projecting her own feelings onto the worshippers.

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“Give people a chance to accept you,” said Heiligman, who was a rabbi for Shalom Aleichem for 17 years. “Don’t assume that they will reject you. If they reject you, you’ll know soon enough.”

To help religious leaders make their houses of worship more welcoming to people with disabilities and their families, the Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Maryland Center for Developmental Disabilities recently launched the Faith Community Learning Collaborative. The group aims to provide training to faith leaders and foster conversation between them and people with disabilities and their advocates about how to lower the barriers to participation in religious spaces.

Accessibility and inclusion are about more than installing a ramp for wheelchair users, said Mirian Ofonedu, director of training for the Kennedy Krieger center and creator of the project. It’s about addressing negative attitudes and biases around disability that may exist in a congregation and ensuring that people with disabilities and their families know they can “come as they are” to worship.

“We are all called to know God, but more importantly, to experience God,” Ofonedu said. “How people with disabilities go about experiencing God is often socially stigmatized. An inclusive community, where people with disabilities fully participate, is a sign of God’s presence and love in that community.”

Last summer, two years after the Maryland Center for Developmental Disabilities launched the project, it conducted a survey of more than 255 faith leaders and people with disabilities and their families in collaboration with the Maryland Department of Health’s Office of Faith Based and Community Partnerships and the Faith Community Commission of the Governor’s Commission on Suicide Prevention.

The results showed that few people with disabilities or their family members held leadership positions in their faith communities and highlighted the need for training for faith leaders on how to connect with people who have disabilities in their congregations. Comments submitted with the survey revealed that people with disabilities and their families had experienced feeling isolated, rejected and excluded by faith communities.

When a child is diagnosed with a disability, their parents often turn to their faith leaders and communities for support and guidance, Ofonedu said. To be greeted with a shut door instead can be discouraging, she said.

“Everyone deserves the right to belong and fully participate and engage in meaningful activity within their community,” she said.

Heiligman, who is now a rabbi for the Bet Chaverim Congregation in Columbia, shared her story recently during an event organized by Rabbi Yanky Baron, the director of the Chabad of Ellicott City. Baron, as well as Deacon David Lascu of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore’s Bolton Hill and Eva Queen of Reisterstown’s Messiah Community Church, were among the faith leaders who participated in the Faith Community Learning Collaborative’s first two-day training this spring.

The panel discussion, hosted at a senior center in Ellicott City, covered such topics as how to include people with developmental disabilities in services and the importance of asking whether accommodations are needed. It also featured Rabbi Craig Axler of Temple Isaiah in Fulton and Matthew Plantz, a self-advocate and member of the Howard County Autism Society board of directors.

To help make the event more accessible to people who are hard of hearing, Baron hired an American Sign Language interpreter — something he hopes to do at future Chabad events, as well. The religious center has been offering shorter services that may be better for people who have challenges sitting through a three-hour service, such as those with ADHD or children with disabilities.

“Just provide it. Don’t assume that people will want it one way or another,” he said. “If people don’t know that it’s an option — if you put out a flyer and you don’t mention how we can accommodate you or how we can find you transportation — in today’s world, no one’s going to ask you for it. They’re just going to assume it’s not provided.”

© 2023 The Baltimore Sun
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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