MARBLEHEAD – Last Rosh Hashanah, two men using canes tried to swing open the heavy wooden doors of Temple Sinai’s bathroom. There wasn’t enough space for them to maneuver the doors while holding their canes, and they almost knocked each other over.
To avoid situations like that, attendees sometimes needed to escort each other across the Community Road parking lot so that they could use the Jewish Community Center’s handicapped-accessible bathrooms.
“One of our members said she planned around her bodily needs when she came to shul – that’s terrible,” said Deborah Shelkan Remis, the chair of the temple’s Inclusion Committee.
As of early May, those worries are a thing of the past. Thanks to private donations, a pro bono architect, and a $5,000 grant from the Ruderman Family Foundation’s Synagogue Inclusion Project, Temple Sinai was able to build a gender-neutral, handicap-accessible bathroom that is compliant with the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
After receiving the Ruderman grant three years ago, the inclusion committee met to decide how to best spend the money. Initially, members considered replacing the stairs up to the main sanctuary’s bimah with a ramp, but such a project would’ve proved too difficult and costly so instead, they moved the lecterns to the ground level. At the meetings, Rhoda Morse, a retired nurse who uses a walker, mentioned how difficult it had been for congregants in walkers – and impossible for congregants in wheelchairs – to use the current bathrooms. The choice was simple.
The committee worked with Salem-based JN Picariello Construction and architect Nathan Rich to construct the new bathroom. Rich, a New York-based architect, is the son of Julian and Meryl Rich, Sinai congregants active with the Inclusion Committee. As a former congregant, he agreed to do the work for free. “[Nathan] said ‘I was bar mitzvahed here, and if it weren’t for Temple Sinai, I wouldn’t have my Judaism,’” said Remis.
An underused section of the coatroom near the building’s water source seemed an ideal location. Rich and the Inclusion Committee worked hard to design as accessible a bathroom as possible. The new bathroom has a door that opens easily and is wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs. It also has automatic lights, a higher toilet seat, a handle bar surrounding the toilet, a tilted mirror viewable from a wheelchair, and a seat for an attendant.
Members of the inclusion committee scouted out restrooms everywhere to test their accessibility.
“We checked out bathrooms – Starbucks, doctor’s offices, everywhere we went, we sent each other pictures of the bathrooms, and that was helpful because that’s where you’d see if something was wrong,” said Jonathan Leamon, another member of the Inclusion Committee.
“It was definitely an education, and a wonderful education for the whole synagogue,” said Remis. “Normally, we take these all for granted.”
The gleaming new bathroom isn’t the only change Sinai has made since joining the Ruderman Inclusion Project. Mezuzot were lowered on doors so people in wheelchairs could reach them, many seats now have arms, the lectern was moved off the bimah, and the water fountain was replaced with a more accessible water spigot. During services, Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez and Cantor David Aronson now say, “Please rise in body and spirit,” instead of simply saying, “Please rise.”
“It really elevated everyone’s senses to what it means to have an all-inclusive environment,” said Remis.
“A synagogue should be a place for all.”