It all started with a ramp, or a lack thereof.
Scotty grew up in the synagogue community, a kid everyone loved. Neither the cerebral palsy diagnosis he received as a baby nor the wheelchair that carried him from his earliest days ever dampened his spirit, his smile, his radiance. Scotty’s determination to play an equal part in our community life demanded so much commitment and effort on his part and that of his family. On the Shabbat morning he celebrated becoming a bar mitzvah, Scotty needed to be lifted in his wheelchair by four family friends up onto the bimah. With each small triumph, and each obstacle overcome, our community celebrated his courage; yet, with each “step” Scotty took, we became more aware of how relatively little we had done, and how far we had to go, to become a truly inclusive community.
In Parashat Ki Tavo, we learn of the Hebrew formula that each Israelite was required to recite upon offering the thanksgiving gift of first fruits in the Promised Land. In one sense, this set liturgy can be seen as unifying and inclusive, creating a ceremony equally accessible and empowering to all. In practice, however, it became clear that not all Israelites could participate in the ceremony in the intended manner. The Mishnah informs us that originally this formula was only to be recited in Hebrew (Sotah 7:2-3). In time, a prompter was provided for those who could not recite the Hebrew. Eventually, to save those individuals in need of prompting the embarrassment of appearing inept, it became standard practice for all to repeat the formula after the prompter (Bikkurim 3:7).
The ramp came first. Then a total redesign of our sanctuary lowered the bimah and brought our podium to the floor. Mezuzot on the bottom halves of our doors; a separate accessible bathroom and remotely activated doors; removable sanctuary seats that will allow space for wheelchairs amongst the congregation, as opposed to being accommodated in a back corner–all these conscious modifications were intended to make our space more welcoming to all. With each step of progress, however, we become more aware of, and sensitive to, the challenges ahead.
In this week’s parasha, Nitzavim, we are told that the Torah is not in the heavens (“Lo bashamayim hi,” Deut. 30:12), that one should need not climb to the sky to bring it down. Yet, despite all our best intentions, greater access to our bimah awakened us to the fact that–for the one sitting in a wheelchair who approaches our Torah reader’s table–the Torah might as well be in the heavens. It is too high to see for those who cannot stand from their chair. If we had only begun our thought process from the perspective of the one seeking access, the entire design might look different today.
We have much for which we can be proud as we continue to shape our spaces and reshape our understanding of tradition. Our sages certainly understood the need to react according to changing needs and evolve. Our understanding of inclusivity, however, must begin with the perspective of the one who is bringing the gifts of their presence. The reactive approach to others’ needs may be admirable, but it potentially demands too much sacrifice and too high a personal cost for the one seeking access. He might even turn away before placing himself in the situation of asking for accommodation. True empathy would have us examine and shape our rituals, traditions and customs proactively, so that no person seeking access is left feeling like they are fighting for, or being granted, accommodation.
Scotty, you deserved so much more than a ramp.
When every prior effort has failed, what is required to continue trying? Where does one find the energy to believe that change for good is possible despite a history of dashed hopes? How is it possible for people of shared good intentions to sit together at a table and dream of a different kind of reality for Rockland County? The answer is: strong minded optimism.
Yesterday I attended a meeting called by Dr. Penny Jennings, Commissioner of the Rockland County Human Rights Commission. She believes that government’s job is not to make change but to support change efforts. New to her post, Dr. Jennings hopes that by bringing together a group of interfaith leaders, she can kick-start efforts to unify our community.
When I received the invitation, I could have said: been there, done that. Instead, I found myself moved by Dr. Jennings’ dedication to change. From the moment Rabbi Scheff and I met her last month at the rally against hate on the New City Courthouse steps, we saw that Dr. Jennings is a catalyst for action, a skilled listener and empathic thinker. I knew that I wanted to be on her team.
Once again I found myself in a board room surrounded by people of good intentions brainstorming ways to heal the divisiveness, insularity, and prejudice that mar our home in Rockland County.
Once again I found myself in discussions about brokenness, distrust and fear without the presence of the people whose voices are required in the room. We need leadership of the Chasidic communities at the table in order to have robust, honest conversation, in order for real change to happen. We must find a way to change hearts and minds enough to successfully bring into the room people who do not want to be there.
Dr. Jennings, however, pointed out that we have to begin somewhere. “Someone has to extend the olive branch and I don’t mind being the one to do it.” Evan Bernstein, Regional Director, and Etzion Neuer, Deputy Regional Director of the New York office of the Anti-Defamation League, brought their wisdom and experience to the table.
But most of all, Dr. Jennings listened to the community and religious leaders gathered at her table. She engaged us in an honest conversation about the most pressing issues of human rights and social justice in our county.
We talked about paths to change and barriers as well.
We all agreed on our destination: a hospitable environment where bad behavior will not be tolerated. Rockland County will be a place where we are gracious to our neighbors. We will have mutual respect. We will have a knowledge of each other’s values and concerns.
Government cannot legislate loving one’s neighbor, but it can legislate against acts of hatred. Attitude shifts can happen in a multitude of small steps. Doing nothing except giving in to frustration and anger cannot be the most reasonable response. The issues in Rockland County are not going away, and neither are we. Rockland County is our home.
After a discussion about the many difficulties in reaching our goals, Dr. Jennings offered the most profound statement of the day: “Oy vey!”
As a rabbi in this county, I am committed to working toward change. As a rabbi of the Orangetown Jewish Center, I am proud to represent our congregation in its desire to be a part of the work that is required.
In these weeks before the High Holy Days, it seems to me that nothing could be more important. In a world where the tone of discourse has become ugly, it is required of us to remember the power of respectful communication. It is essential to defy hatred and refuse to be part of intolerant behavior.
Is being optimistic naïve? I believe that optimism is a courageous choice. Join me in optimism. The alternative, helplessness and hopelessness, is not a real choice.
L’shana tova, a good year for all, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
I can’t imagine what direction my life might have taken without Arlene Tuttle, my 6th grade teacher. With just the right blend of intelligence, humor, sarcasm, discipline and love, she taught me to love learning and to love teaching. I may have only been 11 years old at the time, but she clearly left an important impression on my life. I often think of her, especially as I prepare to walk into a classroom of sixth graders tomorrow.
Tonight, on the eve of a new school year, I think about the influence that teachers have on their students. And I think about the influence that students have on their teachers. Growing up, I was told on many occasions that I should be a rabbi. But it took the right person making the same suggestion in the right moment to change the course of my life. (Thanks, sis!)
We have as much power to “make or break” our teachers as we do our students. The right acknowledgment can validate a person’s life choice; just as the wrong remark can move someone to abandon a lifelong dream.
Our sages teach that “all is in the hands of God except for the awe of God.” In other words, everything is in God’s control, except what isn’t. What is not in God’s hands is that which we control: our words, our actions, and the consequences thereof.
As we walk into our classrooms, we must be cognizant of the power we have to shape others’ perceptions of themselves. As teachers, as students, as classmates, may we conduct ourselves with the understanding that we are shaping the classrooms of today and of the generations to follow.
May we grow in knowledge, wisdom and compassion together!
Rabbi Craig Scheff