The dream of wheelchair-bound congregants at Congregation Anshei Israel — to ascend to the bimah like everyone else — has become reality. The congregation’s new wheelchair-accessible ramp, which bridges the previous divide, was dedicated at a Saturday morning Shabbat service on March 24.
“I’ve been extremely frustrated that people who are wheelchair-bound couldn’t come up for an aliyah,” to bless the Torah, Rabbi Robert Eisen told the AJP. “I said ‘this is wrong.’ Members of the congregation stepped forward and started seeding the project,” believing they could make it happen, including the Melanie and Harris Amhowitz family, who endowed the project.
Alene Schwartz recalls helping to get a wheelchair-accessible ramp installed outside the building 30 years ago. And in 1999, when her daughter got married, “we had to drive around the building in what seemed like a maze to get on the bimah in my wheelchair,” says Schwartz.
In February, on the day the new ramp was completed, Schwartz was the first to navigate her wheelchair up the ramp. “For me,” she says, “it was a dream come true.”
Even more moving for her was the first Shabbat service the ramp was in use, “watching my friend Judy Schneider [being called] for an aliyah, being entrusted with the Torah and driving it around,” says Schwartz. “I didn’t realize how much it meant to me till I saw that. It hit me at the heart level.”
The service moved her to tears. “Instead of someone having to bring the Torah to those in wheelchairs, not being singled out that way, she was bringing the Torah to the whole community.”
Congregation Anshei Israel is “always trying to make services more accessible to everyone, not just spiritually but physically,” says Eisen. “As we’ve evolved we want to bring people closer to God. To renovate means to restore” a synagogue that’s been in its present location since 1969.
Abby Rosen, another Anshei Israel congregant, wrote a poem about her newfound ability to safely approach the bimah, titled “To Daven with Dignity: Baruchu”: Come closer to Me is what I hear/Calling each name so loud and clear/Rising toward heaven just to be near/To daven with dignity will be ever so dear.
“This poem reflects my true feelings about being able to get closer to God —at least physically. I am so pleased that my congregation supported this life-enhancing effort,” affirms Rosen.