High Holiday 5781 Guide for People with Disabilities or Underlying Conditions

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Wednesday, August 12, 2020

High Holidays 5781—A Guide for

Jews with Disabilities

Rabbi Michael Levy

© August 2020, Yad Hachazakah—The Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, Inc.


For thousands of years, the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) have drawn us to houses of worship to seek God and plead for His forgiveness.   Even in our youngest years, the apple dipped in honey brought sweetness to our hearts and hope that the New Year would bring joy to our families and all humanity.

Because of the COVID-19 crisis, the 5781 High Holidays will be different.

 Purpose of the Yad HaChazakah 5781 High Holiday Guide

The Guide is an open letter from Yad’s Board to all Jews with disabilities, our families and friends.  We are also sharing it with the clergy, educators, advocates and health professionals with whom we associate.

The guide is available at Yad’s website:


If anyone has questions or needs more information, leave a message at 646-723-3955 and we will return your call as soon as we can.  You may also email us at info@YadEmpowers.org.

Yad models High Holiday celebrations according to Independent Living Philosophy—putting The Person at the center of the celebration, not his or her disability.


We at Yad HaChazakah do not act as clergy, government representatives or health professionals.  We do not provide medical advice or prescribe what Jewish law and tradition dictate under any circumstances, let alone during the COVID-19 crisis.

Rather, we offer a perspective from our combined experience of centuries of living with disability and advocating in the Jewish community.

The guide is a springboard for thought and discussion.  It is not a prescription that you or anyone are obligated to follow.  You, the reader, or anyone with whom you share this document, are fully responsible for the choices you make and the results of those choices.

Consider Planning Your High Holiday Celebrations Well In Advance

Synagogues and other prayer groups are already deciding how to conduct their High Holiday services and celebrations.  Since planning for these days is complicated for many of us with disabilities, consider beginning your planning soon.

Yad is offering what might be called “an ideal planning and celebration scenario.”  It is very likely that given the COVID-19 crisis and its unpredictability, 5781 will not be celebrated with the unmixed hope and cheer you remember from the High Holidays last year.

We’re offering examples highlighting certain disabilities.  There are many more disabilities and health-related chronic conditions which we’re not covering because of time and space limitations.

Ask Yourself: Should I Assemble a Team to Help Me Plan and Celebrate a Safe and Integrated Holiday Season?

Not everybody has the same “human resources” and attitudes about requesting help.  However, if you do assemble a team, choose members who know you and/or are willing to hear your comments and questions, and who may have access to information that you lack.

Possible Team Members

A rabbi, cantor, or other “official” of the synagogue which you plan to attend;

  • A health professional
  • A person familiar with the latest government regulations and recommendations regarding COVID-19
  • A person familiar with your town and state rules regarding religious gatherings
  • Someone who is very familiar with your specific capabilities and limitations.

Ideally, each of these team members should know you as the unique person who you are, not as an embodied “disability” or “special need.”  No presumptions should be made about you or your condition.

You should lead the conversation.  Encourage each team member to share information with you.

Keep in mind the policies and procedures which your synagogue will follow, your objective health condition, the nature of your specific disability, the accommodations you need and how much risk you can and want to take.  Then, make your decisions.

How should you react if a member of your team says “No one with your disability should attend a synagogue for the holidays.”?

If this happens, ask the team member “With all due respect, what is the basis of your opinion regarding me and my specific risk factors?”

It may in fact be a very valid opinion.  On the other hand, it may be based on a stereotypical presumption about your disability or condition. You should talk with any such team member(s,) so that either you better understand the basis for their valid advice or they change their recommendation based upon a better understanding of you, your condition, and how you plan to minimize risk.

Pikuach Nefesh–Your Safety and the Safety of Others Outweigh All Other Considerations

The Torah principle of “Pikuach nefesh” means “saving of a life.”  For purposes of the current COVID-19 crisis, it outweighs all other considerations.

Here are some thoughts about how Pikuach Nefesh applies to people with disabilities:

As a person who is blind, I am concerned that a kindhearted but forgetful person might touch my hand in order to guide me or offer to carry my large Braille prayerbooks.  I have no idea whether s/he is following COVID-19 protocols.  This affects whether I will travel to a synagogue and how I will walk there.

A person who is deaf or hard of hearing may find that a mask or face shield interferes with lip reading.  If an interpreter is present, arrangements need to be made in advance regarding where the interpreter will stand in relation to the person who needs him/her in order to communicate.

Wheelchair users and persons of Short stature may be vulnerable to saliva droplets falling on them from people who are singing, chanting loudly or blowing the Shofar.  Droplets have been known to travel more than six feet before falling.

We always appreciate help from generous volunteers who may wish to assist us at the synagogue or on our way to and from it.  However, if these helpers have themselves been exposed to potential virus carriers, it is unsafe to accept their help without consulting a health professional.

Do You Require Electricity?

If you use electricity in a Rabbinically approved way for Shabbat and Yom Tov for a ventilator or other device, what would happen if you were at a synagogue and there was a power outage?

In normal years, you might be able to manage without power for a while, or summon help.  Think about whether a power outage at your synagogue is too much of a risk, given COVID-19, the possible unavailability of help and possible delays in restoring power.

Maintaining Safety During Synagogue Attendance

Most synagogues will establish and comply with facial protection and social distancing to lower the risk that a worshipper will be exposed to COVID—19.  However, there may still be risks.

To their credit, most worshippers initially follow face protection and social distancing rules.  However, after a few hours, masks can become uncomfortable.

Worshippers may feel hot and confined.  They may not be able to hear the cantor or the Torah reader.  It is very tempting to lift the mask for a fresh breath of air or to ignore social distancing to greet a friend.

Removing one’s mask can put everybody nearby at risk.  What if you are nearby?

Are you able to independently leave a prayer gathering if it becomes unsafe, or find someone to help you leave?  Remember, even if there is a remote chance that you could become infected with the virus, you may nevertheless need to “run for your life.”

Become Involved in Your Synagogue’s High Holiday Preparations!

We will be choosing houses of worship that comply with COVID-19 safety precautions including sanitization, air-filtering, social distancing, and face covering.

As people with a variety of disabilities and health conditions, we also want our synagogues to be receptive, accepting, accessible and accommodating.

We cannot and should not expect others to make suitable synagogue arrangements for us.  We can contact the people in our synagogues who, with COVID-19 concerns in mind,  re-arrange seating, distribution of prayerbooks, access to the Bima, pathways to and use of drinking fountains and restrooms, etc.

Helping Yourself and Others Celebrate the Holidays Safely will Mirror God’s Ways

We long for the High Holidays as are time to be with God.  This year, the teachings of Rabbi Aryeh Nivin based on the Slonimer Rebbe and others can help us seek God during the COVID-19 crisis:

The purpose of a human being is to be like God.  By being like God, we are with God no matter where we are.

The Bible is filled with God’s actions to benefit humanity:  God clothed Adam and Eve, rescued Noah from the Flood, guided Abraham to an understanding of justice and charity, and fed the Israelites in the wilderness.

This year, even more than other years, we can be like God:  “clothing” ourselves and others with protective gear, rescuing others from infection by maintaining social distance, guiding others to understand that true companionship means providing what another person needs or wants—not what you think she needs or wants, and nourishing others physically, spiritually and psychologically as the crisis continues.

We mirror God in an exalted way by guarding our lives and the lives of others. As much as it hurts, God may want some of us to refrain from worshipping in synagogues this year, for our own safety and the safety of others.

My Plea

God, if I can’t worship in a synagogue during the holidays, I accept Your Decree.

There are times when I feel anger.  As a Parent, You understand that anger can come from anguish.

“Min hamaytzar”—from within my anguish, I ask for You to come to those who are isolated in their homes; bereft of the companionship of other worshippers and unable to enjoy the apple and honey with loved ones.

Many of us seek You even more than we did during the High Holidays of 5780.

We ask that somehow You, despite or because of the crisis, grant us a glimpse of an echo of an intuition of Your Love as we pray to you.

Our prayer:  Please Inscribe and Seal All of Us and humanity worldwide in the Book of Life and Peace for 5781.

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