It all started with a ramp
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.
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