Including Jews of All Abilities
My friend Anne* recently told me a story about her eighteen year old son, Samuel. “When David (her husband) davens, Samuel loves to be in the room. He sits quietly and most often seems to be completely detached from the prayers. If David pauses, however, Samuel inserts the next word in the prayer. Often, David includes Sam in his prayers by pausing throughout, letting Sam add the next word in order. . . with perfect pitch! Sure enough, Sam seems to know the entire morning service by heart.”
David’s prayers are enhanced by sharing them with his son. Sam is multiply disabled and autistic. One might assume that religious connections are beyond his level of comprehension. David and Sam’s shacharit experience tells a different story. Judaism is an anchor for Sam, a point of connection to his family and his people. Sam has a spiritual life that is expressed through his participation in his father’s morning prayers. His synagogue, however, was not a place of engagement for Samuel. His requirements for participation proved too difficult for the synagogue to meet his needs. There is a limit to what an organization can do to accommodate one individual, but I wonder if the synagogue could have tried harder.
Certainly, most synagogues pride themselves on opening their doors wide to all Jews and believe that they are welcoming, inclusive places. I believe that the Orangetown Jewish Center is indeed a welcoming, inclusive place where congregants and clergy alike are focused on ensuring that all are comfortable in our synagogue. We have large-print prayer books, ramps for wheelchair accessibility, and interpreters of American Sign Language. The Nefesh program, under Renee Price’s leadership, offers evenings of education around topics of serving children with a variety of disabilities. In recent years, we have welcomed worshippers from the Rockland Psychiatric Hospital and from county adult group homes to Shabbat services, Na’aseh programs and Sukkot experiences. A loyal troupe of Chesed volunteers visits at an ARC group home for holiday celebrations and a group of teens visits bi-monthly at Jawonio’s Salmon House to bake, play games and do crafts. At the OJC, we do a good job. We can, of course, do more and do better.
We are proud of our Inclusion Committee, chaired by Ellen Abramson and Marianne Brown, that meets to consider accommodations such as a hearing loop system for our sanctuary, free access front doors and ASL interpretation. They need your energy and ideas. Please contact them to get involved. Contact Ellen: firstname.lastname@example.org and Marianne: email@example.com.
February is Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month. The OJC joins with Jewish Federations, National Jewish Education Organizations and synagogues across the United States to recognize and increase the awareness of the needs, strengths, opportunities and challenges of people with disabilities in our Jewish community. I will be speaking on the topic of inclusion this coming Shabbat to acknowledge and honor our efforts and to encourage our further accomplishments in this arena.
“The question is not how we can help people with disabilities (which is an important question). A more important question is how people with disabilities can give their spiritual gifts to us. — Henri Nouwen, Theologian and Author
*The names in this story have all been changed to protect anonymity at my friends’ request.
I look forward to sharing Shabbat with you! Rabbi Paula Mack Drill