You can lead a wheelchair to water, but…..

Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month – Spotlight 2, Michael Pucci
You can lead a wheelchair to water, but…..

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Growing up in the Pucci house, my physical disability was mostly invisible to my family. My parents’ expectations of me were no different than their expectations of my sisters and brother. Society was a whole ‘nother story. In the world outside my front door, the more physically different an individual was the more “different” they were treated. That was my mindset as well. So, ultimately, I endeavored to be as “normal” as possible. The same could be said for most of my peers with physical disabilities; we strove to “fit in.”  On one hand, the effort was doomed to failure… it’s beyond hard to hide 2 crutches and an obvious limp. On the other hand, it was, for me at least, a journey to self-discovery. I’ll spare you from the story of that journey… for now.

To come to the point of this piece, there are some residuals to spending a big chunk of time trying to “fit in” and be “normal” and some of those residuals are not so positive or inspiring. Over the years, I’ve done a lot of work on letting folks help me. I didn’t start out being so accepting of help as I am now. In my early years, my father could expect some very sharp teeth digging into his arm if he made the unwise decision of trying to carry me someplace rather than waiting the near eternity of letting me get there on my own. When I lived in Boston for school, my girlfriend lived at the top of Beacon Hill in a 4-floor walk-up. Most days, when I finished my shift as a pharmacy internal at Mass General, I’d walk up. Some days I let her carry my backpack full of textbooks… some days not… and never if she asked if I needed help. Hara, my patient wife, had to learn the same hard lesson. After a long day of visiting family or friends with our toddler, Greta, it was MY JOB to carry everything into the house no matter how many back-and-forth trips or how long it took. With Hara being Hara, it took a long time for her to get past her compassion and learn not to ask if I needed help.

Over the years, I’ve aged…surprise, surprise! With age my mobility has decreased a bit (or more) but, more importantly, I’ve come to the realization that embracing help when offered (whether I need it or not) gives me something much more important than some fallacy of physical independence. Allowing another, especially someone I love, to help me reaffirms my connection to my family, friends, community or the good Samaritan (I know that’s the other religious tradition…but you get it, right?). These connections with others bring me happiness, gratitude for their caring, contentment that I’ve helped another feel good about themselves and a truer sense of “fitting in” to the human family than I could ever get from looking and moving “normal.”

There are those times though… I’m human, I fail, I fall short. In my family, we have a Christmas Eve tradition of meeting all the Hartmans (my in-laws) for dinner at a kosher restaurant in NYC. This year, the night was unseasonably warm and dry. Some rain earlier in the day had cleared out. The parking near midtown was typically tricky so we had several blocks to traverse to get from our parking garage to the restaurant. Our start into the city from home was typically late so we were in a bit of a rush. It’s those times when I’m a bit stressed that the young boy with sharp teeth comes back. I was going to set the pace and it would be brisk. I was going to push the wheelchair myself. Well, I should have thought that one through. The second curb that we came to was hidden under dark puddle of rain water… at least I hope it was rain water. I approached at “lift off” speed. Unfortunately, my wheelchair didn’t “lift off” … the wheelchair stopped cold. You know what else was cold? The water was cold! I know because I bounced out of my wheelchair and was sitting in that puddle and soaked to the skin. My wife and a kind stranger helped me back into the wheelchair. I hadn’t learned my lesson yet though. I was still intent on pushing myself. That wasn’t the last time I fell out of my wheelchair that night…twice more. I was very stubborn; I was very wet; I was very cold. Ever sit through a 2-and-a-half-hour dinner with wet pants? After you were three years old? That was a 4-scotch dinner. The story I tell now has Hara pushing me into the puddle and trying to drown me for the insurance….

As Bruce Wayne’s father said to him, “Why do we fall…? So we can learn to pick ourselves up” Forgive me for having the audacity to think I could improve on Thomas Wayne’s quote… “Why do we fall…? So we can learn to accept the blessing of help from others.” But you should still watch out for the sharp teeth.

I’ve enjoyed telling you this story. I hope you’ve found it fun and amusing. It’s true in all its absurdity but I would be remiss if I didn’t add a serious aside. The blessing in allowing someone to help me is only fully realized by me when I am confident that I could achieve the same physical result without help. In other words, if physical barriers exist to my access to a place that I reasonably want to go on my own (i.e., reasonable means not necessarily access to the peak of Mt. Everest) and the place is accessible to the average Joe, my joy and fulfillment are diminished. It’s complicated, I know….

Michael Pucci

Jewish Disabilities Awareness – Spotlight 1

This is the first in a series of email blogs from folks who have a story to tell about the challenges and experiences of dealing with physical disabilities daily. We hope that through these stories we can show our families, friends and community that, while we deal with physical challenges every day, they don’t set us apart; they can bring us together. The human condition places challenges to overcome for all of us whether they are physical, emotional, psychological or spiritual.
If you are reading this blog and have a story of your own to tell, PLEASE write it down and send it to michael.pucci.phd@verizon.net.  We would be thrilled to include your story along with ours. If you have questions, you can email the address above or call Michael Pucci (914 262-1354).
Thank you to Allen Levinson for our first spotlight:
How I deal with blindness
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As many of you know, I lost much of my vision 6 years ago. Since then, I have often been seen with a smile, working hard to invent and perfect “blind guy tricks.” The tricks are merely ways to maximize the use of my senses, as well as my memory and common sense, to help me “see.” This challenge is quite great, but I am able to work on it 24/7, and that’s what I do.  While my vision is severely impaired, I do have the ability, when the light is right, to see shadows, or silhouettes. That is why my sunglasses are always with me and used whenever I think they might be helpful. I lack central vision but my peripheral vision is often somewhat useful, though relying on it is very exhausting. Keeping my eyes closed for a period of time, or just a short nap, provides a respite from the persistent battle with eye strain.

To grapple with my limited visual world, I make greater use of hearing and touch, and occasionally, even a bit of sight. While many people presume that blind people have enhanced levels of these senses, that is often not the case for me. My tricks using these other senses are successful because of my increased focus, not greater capability. Some of these skills develop through instinct, more through notable attentiveness. Listening for sounds is important. Individuals have different footsteps. Among those with leather soles, men are always heavier- sounding than women, and children are in a class by themselves. If I hear you walk on a hard floor first thing in the morning, I’ll probably recognize you at lunch time. Rubber soles? Forget about it.  Voices and speech patterns are also clearly distinctive. If you introduce yourself to me often enough, eventually, I recognize your voice; a pleasant thing for both of us.  One of my new mottos, pertaining to the fact that I cannot, with confidence, discern the words or symbols “Men” or “Women” on a restroom door, is “thank God for urinals!” 😉  In fact, finding the restroom is at times a bit of a challenge, especially in a place where I have never been before. Even though there are many amusing stories about my escapades finding the right restroom, the question “Where is the restroom?” is easily answered by plenty of friendly waiters who are happy to direct me. Good luck asking the ensuing question on the return trip- “Where is my table?”! The important thing to remember, I’ve learned, is always look around and count the number of tables along the route to the restroom. Counting is always a very important tool.  Most notably, counting the number of steps on my way up a staircase and remembering that number on my way back down, is a great way to help keep me on my feet. If my companion leads, counts, and announces the number of steps, that is truly, as long as it is precise, very helpful. Another strategy that often leads to amusing outcomes is using my sense of touch. For example, it is not unusual to see me tapping my fingers around on the dining table until I find the salt shaker. Touch, in circumstances like this works quite well.  I’ve learned however, that an important area in which I can get in trouble using this technique is when “looking” at a woman!  😉   I can go on and on with anecdotes; hopefully, you have gotten at least a bit of the picture.

So, how can you be most sensitive to my needs? I think that the following observation applies to most all physically challenged people: remember we all want to work on our feelings of independence. Saying “Can I help you?” is always a thoughtful thing to do. When you hear “no” in response, don’t push. On some occasions, I don’t just say “no,” but rather “I don’t know,” followed by “if I can do it myself, I’d much prefer that. If I find I need help, I’ll ask you.” You can always help me most by using words, not by grabbing or otherwise touching me to guide me, and remembering that your words should not include gestures. “Over there” is rarely helpful. “Watch out” or “look out,” are for obvious reasons, not useful phrases when communicating with me. I feel least “exceptional” when I can be most like everyone else.

Thanks to all of you for your support and understanding. It is truly a mitzvah.
Wishing for all the best for all of us,
Allen Levinson

Weaving our Community: the Weft and the Warp

I write this post from Ben Gurion Airport at Gate C-9, waiting for the flight home to be with our OJC community for Shabbat. I look forward to sharing with everyone the depth of learning I experienced during the past four days in Israel.
Thirty committed Jewish lay leaders and professionals from Rockland County sat in a beautiful room overlooking the Mediterranean in the ancient town of Jaffa for many hours each day. We represented twelve different Jewish organizations and with the assistance of SIT (Systematic Inventive Thinking), we learned to innovate, discuss, plan and activate. But most of all, we learned to weave.
The purpose of our seminar was to weave the Rockland Jewish community together with enough strength and beauty to last m’dor l’dor, from generation to generation.
How exactly were we weaving? What did we hook onto the wood and anchors of our loom? How did we interlace the warp and weft of the threads? Our warp was our call, our strivings, actions and teaching. Our weft consisted of our anchors, the safe people and places, our Jewish homes, our synagogues and schools and organizations.
The trick about weaving is that from where we stand below, it looks like chaos. There are knotted threads, frayed or cut, mistakes, uneven spots, mismatched colors. But on the front side, the top side, the side that is hidden from our view, perhaps even the side that God sees, there the weaving is perfect. The patterns are clear, the colors blended, the stitching precise. Our work thus requires just a little bit of faith.
We went to Israel to learn how to weave because our homeland has been the wellspring of Jewish inspiration for thousands of years. We were inspired indeed by start-ups and innovators and programs for social justice . We learned to pull out the essence of the ideals undergirding the innovation and collaboration and imagine putting it to use in Rockland.

We heard from the company SpaceIL that is building Israel’s lunar rover and from TOM, Tikkun Olam Make-a-thon. We learned about Dror Yisrael, urban educational kibbutzim and Ruach Chadasha, program to revitalize young artistic life in Jerusalem. And so much more…
Inspired by the innovation all around us, I look back across the ocean toward home just before boarding and start thinking about ways to make the life of our Rockland Jewish community strong and vibrant. I am grateful to my OJC partner on this journey, Matt Schiering as well as fellow OJC congregants representing Federation, Carol Blau and Andrea Weinberger. We all invite all of you to join us!

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The weaving work has only just begun…
Shabbat shalom, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Leading a faith community

The traditional names for the synagogue–beit knesset, beit tefilah, beit midrash–connote a house of assembly, a house of worship and a house of inquiry and learning. These days, the synagogue is also considered the center of a faith community.

What does it mean to me to be a faith community? It means collectively embracing a hopeful and optimistic view of the world, where faith in God, in people, and in the potential Godliness of every person shapes values, morals and personal choices. In keeping with the ethical codes of our sages, it means giving others the benefit of the doubt without taking unreasonable risk to one’s own well being.

Judaism’s prophetic tradition envisioned a world order where all people would ultimately see God as one and recognize one another as the creation of that one God. In post-Biblical times, this vision of an era to come (olam ha-ba) was transformed into an other-worldly vision, one that could only arrive through divine intervention. Some even embraced the idea that a super-human or semi-divine figure would be needed to bring about this new world order.

Our sages of Rabbinic Judaism brought us back to our emphasis on human agency. We don’t rely on divine fiat to bring about the days of the era to come. Our messianic age is not ushered in by God, but by those of us here doing the work of God.

Israel and America are two potential entities through which this new world order can be brought about. There is nothing wrong with America or Israel wanting to put themselves “first” in this new order, so long as being first doesn’t mean being exclusive. Being first in this order means leading the way for all of humanity to ultimately be a part of the same vision, the same order. If I am first, and no one is following, then I am also last. Isolation and exclusivity did not fit with the prophets’ notion that Judaism’s values would serve as a light drawing humanity to unite as one.

As a leader of a faith community, I will continue to have faith in God; in people; and in policies that move us closer to a world order where all people search for the image of God in others. Our assembly, our worship, our inquiry and learning all point us in this direction as a worldview. Your vision of where we need to go as a society, as a country, as a world or as Jews may differ from mine; but as someone (who doesn’t see the world as I do) recently told me, I must speak the words that are in my heart. They are the wisdom of my experiences and my truths, and my responsibility to espouse in leading a faith community.

I don’t seek to be political in my views or to take sides. Different times demand that different values be prioritized and championed. I will speak out against Islamic fundamentalism that threatens my security and I will call out Jewish fundamentalism that chips away at my identity. I will warn against Islamophobia and I will defend against anti-Semitism. I will advocate for the rights of women to control their own bodies and I will demand the need for people to make responsible choices. I will educate for Jewish continuity and I will explore new ways to welcome interfaith households. I will support the rights of countries to protect their citizens, and I will march to demand the protection of the stranger, the vulnerable and those who can’t protect themselves. I will teach towards a greater awareness of the needs of people with disabilities and I will push for us to see one another as people first. I will own responsibility for my actions and I will accept the collective responsibility we have to our neighbors.

These are the values, among others, that I believe our faith community must advance in moving our world toward a better era for humankind. May that time come soon and in our day.

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Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Forward March… and then…

I offer the words of this post just as I offered the words of my sermon this past Shabbat: as a prayer. Shabbat Parashat Sh’mot was the day after the inauguration of the 45th president and on the day of the Women’s March on Washington. I began with an intention from a poem by Neshama Carlebach written for this past Shabbat: “May we sing and pray with all that we are, loud enough for the whole world to hear, but soft enough to hear the Angels join us.” Writing words both loud and soft enough requires that I write with humility but also with confidence. Words offered with heartfelt integrity have the potential to be unifying and healing.

There are many reading these words now who believe that the world is ending. I remind you of President Obama’s words when he told us that the only thing that is the end of the world is the end of the world. If you are one who is worrying about the new administration in Washington, I am writing for you.

There are also those reading these words who believe that perhaps Washington needs a bit of a shake up and that something good could happen from a little less business as usual. If you are one who is optimistic about our new president, I am writing for you too.

Because regardless of how we voted, the thing that unites all of us is a belief in acceptance, tolerance, and protection of the vulnerable among us.

Twenty-five members of my extended family marched in New York City on Saturday, from my five-year old nephew to my mother-in-law’s best friend who is in her eighties.

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Many OJC congregants marched in Washington and in New York. Many marchers were gathered by organizations with which I am affiliated: National Council of Jewish Women, American Jewish World Service, Planned Parenthood, Hazon, National Organization of Women (NOW), and National Association of Social Workers. In sum, there were more than 600 marches around the world, on every continent. Estimates suggest that there were one million five hundred thousand marchers world-wide.

There is a difference between a march and a protest: one moves forward, the other pushes back.

I shared with my congregation the Women’s March Statement of Principles; ideals to make us a great nation, not to devolve into anger. https://www.womensmarch.com/principles/ The Mission Statement of the March explains that when we walk together, we recognize that our vibrant, diverse communities are the strength of our country. Defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us. To me, these ideas sound a lot like Jewish values of protecting the widow, orphan and stranger among us.

I asked my sister-in-law Rebecca to share with me why she organized our family and then took a train from Boston to march together down Fifth Avenue. She wrote that she was marching to support women and women’s rights, but not just for women. By marching, she wrote: “I am being visible, making a declaration, being heard. All humans’ rights and dignity matter to me and that is why I felt compelled to do something more active and visible this year. I don’t want to remain silent about something that really matters.”

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Ideas about the march connect powerfully to the Torah portion we read this past Shabbat. In Sh’mot, we begin to hear the story of Moshe who ran out of Egypt to Midian and then walked back in to take his people out, to take the Israelite slaves on a walk toward redemption. Moshe is certainly the hero of the entire book, but a counter narrative exists just below the surface, the story of five heroines who put the Exodus into motion. (Read more about these women in Sh’mot Chapter 1:15 through 2:10.)

Midwives Shifra and Puah are ordered by Pharaoh to kill newborn Israelite boys but they refuse to follow through. In their refusal to obey, they teach that there are moral limits to power and serve as models of civil disobedience.

Yocheved gives birth to a baby boy. Seeing in him beauty and promise (as all mothers see in their children), she refuses to throw him in the Nile. Her actions to hide her baby show bravery and resilience. Placing her child in a basket on the river shows a stubborn refusal to relent in the face of an unfair fate.

Miriam, who later gains the appellation of Prophetess, runs along the side of the river to make sure her baby brother survives. She has the chutzpah to approach the daughter of the Pharaoh and offer a nursemaid, her mother, for the baby drawn from the Nile by the princess. She refuses to be helpless in a hopeless situation.

Bat-Paro, the daughter of Pharaoh, is perhaps the most courageous of all these women. When she opens the tiny basket and takes the baby to be her own, she is showing disobedience toward her father, the very one who decreed the infanticide. She knew who that baby was, yet still she saved its life. A midrash imagines God speaking to Bat-Paro, “Moses was not your son yet you called him your son. You are not my daughter but I shall call you my daughter.” In rabbinic tradition, she is one of the few characters of the Torah who is so righteous that she entered into paradise in her lifetime.

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As Jews, our ancestors moved from slavery in Egypt toward freedom. They were not freed by standing still; they had to walk toward their redemption, one step at a time. For those of us today who wish to make history, we too must walk. This past Saturday was not about having a symbolic march in Washington as an end-goal. Success for this march began the day after January 21.

Success will be measured by the way that we stand for people at risk: people of color, identify with the LGBTQ community, belong to religious minorities, or are people with disabilities. Success will be measured in our strong statements against acts of hatred and violence against minority people, including anti-Semitic actions such as the bomb threats against JCCs nationwide. Success will be measured by the ways in which those of us who disagree about policy find compassionate and empathic ways to listen to each other, to hear the differences but recognize that we all want a United States where everyone feels secure and at home. And success will be measured by how quickly we awaken from our leisure induced comas to become alert and active participants in our government.

Jewish history is about our people’s moving from one place to another, from one reality to another. I’m ready to walk into this new chapter of American history. I choose to do it through marching forward. I hope that you will join me. There is a difference between a march and a protest: one moves forward, the other pushes back.

I look forward to the conversation,

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

I am one of four

I am one of four, the third of four to be exact. Being one of four is part of the way I see myself in the world, a central component of my identity and the way I have come to understand people and relationships. My mother is the oldest of three. Her place as the firstborn sibling to a younger brother and sister has shaped her sense of responsibility and the ways in which she derives satisfaction and meaning in the world.

A few weeks ago, my mother lost her younger sister. My aunt Debbie was much more than that to us all. As one of my sons phrased it, she was his grandmother-once-removed. Despite the loss, my mother will always be one of three.

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The shiva period afforded siblings and cousins the opportunity to reunite in appreciating the many blessings that come along with being part of a big family. In one particular conversation, my first cousin-once-removed (that’s my mother’s cousin) shared with me that, despite losing a younger sister decades ago, she describes herself to this day as one of four when asked about her family.

As the narrative of Joseph and his brothers builds towards its climax, Jacob, facing a famine with no end in sight, sends his ten older sons to Egypt for food. Joseph, the vizier in charge of dispensing rations, recognizes his brothers and decides to test them, accusing them of being spies. They respond in one voice: “We your servants are twelve brothers, sons of one man in Canaan; the youngest is with our father, and the one is not” (Genesis 42:13). Leaving aside the fact that the brothers exclude their sister Dinah (a topic for another blog), the brothers see themselves as twelve; it is their identity, even though their brother Joseph has been absent for years and they have passed him off as dead.

In speaking with people who have lost a child, I have learned that parents will often shape answers to questions about their families based on what is most comfortable for them in the moment, on who is asking, and on whether they feel like engaging about their loss. No matter the public response in the moment, these parents count their deceased children as part of the family, still shaping the identity of the family unit.

Such is the nature of memory in the Jewish tradition. In times both happy and sad, we strive to keep the souls of our departed loved ones as a presence in our lives—shaping our identities, defining our priorities, inspiring gratitude for the gifts we possess that can never be taken away.

May our memories of our loved ones be for a blessing to us,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

OJC Israel Experience Day 10: Reflections of a Community

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If someone were to ask me to describe the Orangetown Jewish Center, I might say to them, “Let me tell you about a group of people who traveled to Israel together. We are a microcosm of the greater synagogue community.”
We are a diverse group of people from age 6 to 89 who related to each other as one family. We are curious, ready to learn, and easily moved. We look out for each other and we sought the best in each other. Over the course of 10 days, we found it.

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We love Israel with our eyes and our hearts wide open. We are proud Jews who accept that the Jewish people practice our faith in many different ways. We are proud Zionists who know that Israel is a complicated place, but overall, it is our home.
We have a lot of fun! And it goes without saying, we love to eat!
Today, Zalman asked us, “What did you come with and what are you taking with you?”.
I know that the pilgrims on this trip will continue answering this question for a long time to come. All of us are changed. We know more about Israel than when we first arrived, and we most certainly know something new about ourselves.
Coming here to Israel is a privilege. Our ancestors yearned to come to this land for 2000 years but could not and so we carry them with us whenever we come to Israel.
Maybe the next time OJC comes will be your time?

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As the sun sets over the Mediterranean Sea, we are packing and getting ready for our final dinner before heading to the airport. We hope to see you at services at the OJC on Shabbat so that we can share our pilgrimage experience with you and celebrate the end of Chanukah together.
Chodesh tov and (almost) Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

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