Judaism and Mental Illness – a Question

Question

There has suddenly been a run on the post Judaism and Mental Illness, which I originally posted in October of 2013. In July alone, there have been nearly a thousand “hits” or readings of that column. What is going on?

I’m glad people are finding it useful – at least, I hope that’s what’s happening – but I have to confess, I’m curious too. If you know, would you post a comment and let me in on the secret?

A Visit to the Contemporary Jewish Museum

The_store_front,_Contemporary_Jewish_Museum

Today Linda and I had a business meeting over in San Francisco. I’ve been dithering forever about taking BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) on my scooter, and I figured today was a great opportunity, since we were going together.

BART is great for reading San Francisco without having to park or fight traffic on the Bay Bridge. It is less than lovely in some other ways, namely, the hard-to-find elevators and the sometimes-rude riders. I practically had to run over a guy to get him to allow me my wheelchair spot on the train.

After our business meeting, we stopped to get a sandwich and then traveled a few short blocks to the Contemporary Jewish Museum. I am embarrassed to say this was my first visit, since mobility fears had kept me away.

The facility is truly beautiful and wonderfully accessible. I never once had any problem accessing anything, and the security guard was extremely pleasant. Architecturally, the building is a fabulous mix of old and new, the old Pacific Gas & Electric Jessie Street Substation with a dynamic contemporary structure by architect Daniel Libeskind.

Exhibits at the CJM are staggered so that there’s always something interesting to see. We toured Bound to be Held: A Book Show by Josh Green. It was an intriguing combination of elements: a collection of books donated by famous and private individuals, with personalizations (“Read by Famous”) and The Library of Particular Significance, a lending-library of 1,000 books significant to the people who donated them, with which viewers could interact via post-its or by (imagine that!) reading them. It was both fun and thought-provoking.

The current work on view in In that Case: Havruta in Contemporary Art was somewhat less engaging for us. Bay Area visual artist Anthony Discenza collaborated with New York-based author of horror novels Peter Straub to present a piece on Das Beben, a nineteenth century artistic movement who apparently managed to have themselves and their work burnt up in not one but two catastrophic fires. None of their actual work survives; we were apparently supposed to imagine it from the descriptions. We were mystified and left feeling a bit stupid, but we tried!

We are now members of the museum and will return to see other exhibits soon. It’s a wonderful building and clearly the curators are looking to challenge visitors. If you are in the Bay Area or planning to visit, I recommend it!

Contemporary Jewish Museum
736 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
415.655.7800

Approaching the museum from Mission Street, with the old PG&E substation on view.
Approaching the museum from Mission Street, with the old PG&E substation on view.

Amsterdam for the Disabled Traveler

FullSizeRender (12)

Our trip to the Netherlands coincided with my recovery from a very bad sciatica attack. I was still having trouble walking even a short distance when we got on the plane.

Fortunately I have become adept at traveling with my Travelscoot, so once I was out of the worst pain we quit talking about canceling. (Whew!) The flights were long and uncomfortable, but then, they are long and uncomfortable for everyone. I can use the Travelscoot in the airport and gate-check it, so the airports themselves were not bad at all.  Once we arrived in Amsterdam, I was curious to see how well I could actually get around the city on the ‘scoot.

I am not completely clear on the laws around access in the EU, but I had done enough homework online to be certain that our hotel was accessible and the museums I most wanted to visit were accessible. Beyond that, we were going to have to improvise. The first big test was the tram.

Boarding the Tram
Boarding the Tram

The Internet offered varied tales on the tram. One site said that it was wheelchair accessible but that scooters weren’t welcome. Another said that half of the trams were accessible, half not. On our first day, we went down the street to the Centraal Station to check out the situation at the big Metro stop. To my delight, there were uniformed information people available around the plaza and they were happy to answer our questions. “This is like a wheelchair, yes?” the fellow said to me, waggling his eyebrows. “Yes!” I said, and he said, “OK. You can use it. Just get on the end car with the conductor.” So we did.

That was our ticket to go all over the city. It was fun riding the tram; it is above ground, so we could see the sights and people-watch, too.

I had learned from European users on the Travelscoot forum on facebook that the Rijksmuseum did not allow motorized scooters or wheelchairs. Linda and I went to talk to them, just in case the policy had changed (they just finished a major remodel, so perhaps?) but no. And it was even worse than we feared. Their plan for me was that I should leave my scooter outside the museum and hop on a wheelchair that Linda could push all over the museum. Plus, there was nowhere secure to leave my scooter! No, thanks. Linda went to the Rijks by herself, and I went off on my own adventures.

The sites in the Jewish Cultural Quarter were mostly quite accessible: The Jewish Museum (more on that soon) and the Portuguese Synagogue (ditto) were mostly quite accessible. The Hollandsche Schouwburg, the National Holocaust Memorial, was completely accessible to me. I was impressed that all three were also well equipped for visual and auditory disabilities.

I enjoyed visiting a number of other places as well: the Van Gogh Museum, the Allard Pierson Archaeological Museum,  the Public Library, and others. The main difficulty for us was access to restaurants and shops. Part of the issue is that Amsterdam is below sea level, and many of the older buildings are therefore up a few steps from the street. It was important to phone ahead and ask about access. Google street view was also helpful. I understand that Blue Boat Company offers a wheelchair accessible canal cruise, but I didn’t take one.

The Doubletree Amsterdam Centraal, our hotel, was an absolute delight. The room was very comfortable, the staff were extremely helpful, and all areas of the hotel were available to me on the scooter. There was a time when the last thing I wanted to do on a trip was stay in an American chain hotel, but it made it easy for us to check out the disability options and the location was perfect, just a couple of blocks from Centraal Station.

If any readers find this blog by searching the Web and have additional questions, I hope you will ask via the Comments.

New Jewish Disability Resource Online!

Neil and Denise Jacobson and I, pausing long enough for a photo. Image by Linda Burnett.
Neil and Denise Jacobson and I, pausing long enough for a photo. Image by Linda Burnett.

What untapped resources are hidden in plain sight in your temple membership?

My friend and teacher Neil Jacobson has a bold vision for congregations. He says it so well that I am not going to try to paraphrase. Just watch: Ask Not What the Temple Can Do for People with Disabilities, Ask What People with Disabilities Can Do for the Temple. This video is as un-sappy a take on disability as you will ever experience.

It’s part of a new website co-sponsored by the Union for Reform Judaism and the Ruderman Family Foundation. The website is designed for use by Reform congregations, but it is so well done that I hope it gets broad use both within the movement and beyond it as well.

Many good Jews want to observe the mitzvot concerning blindness and deafness:

Do not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God. – Leviticus 19:14

Too often these mitzvot are approached from the Dark Ages, when a cheresh (deaf person) seemed incapable of communication, and more recently, when people with disabilities were seen as objects of pity or as heroes. In fact, people with disabilities are first and foremost people with gifts to give and talents to share.  We are human beings, made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of the Divine.

Shake off the Dark Ages! Stop wasting the gifts of members in your congregation! If you want to learn about disability, if you are part of a congregation that wants to make better use of its resources, if you want to observe the mitzvot addressed in Leviticus 19:14, check out DisabilitiesInclusion.org!

 

The Barriers In our Hearts

disabilityWhen congregations talk about becoming more accessible to people with disabilities, there’s an underlying assumption that the congregation has something to offer to the person with a disability.

There’s the usual stuff, of course: the rabbi, the religious school, somewhere to go on Yom Kippur. But if the congregation is full of people who don’t know how to be friends with a person who looks different from themselves and who don’t care to learn, what’s the point? That congregation can have all the ramps and hearing devices imaginable, but it will never be a congregational home for Jews with disabilities.

So if we want to make our congregations into places that are truly welcoming, that do not put stumbling blocks before the blind, then we have to work on our attitudes as well as our architecture. And face it, it’s easier to talk about architecture. Stairways don’t get offended when someone says they have to change; people often do.

A question for every one of us (me included) to ask ourselves periodically: among the people not like myself at my congregation, whom do I know well? By “well,” I mean: Have we ever done anything together outside of the synagogue building? Have I ever given them help, or asked for their help? Have they been invited to my home, or I to theirs? Or make it even more basic: do I greet them by name when I see them on Shabbat? Do I smile?

Often, when challenged about such a thing, we feel defensive and embarrassed: “I don’t know what to say” or “I can’t understand her speech.” If the person has a mental illness or developmental disability, or looks very different, we may feel afraid and be embarrassed to admit it. This is a good reason to reach out to clergy, to say, look, I want to be more welcoming of so-and-so, but I haven’t a clue how to talk to him, or what to say to her, or I feel scared of him.  Your rabbi can probably give you some ideas about where to start and will likely be delighted that you have asked.

(Note: as someone pointed out to me recently, there are situations where interaction itself is unwelcome, as with autism. Again, temple staff and clergy can help you figure out what’s welcome and what isn’t.)

Every person brings something unique to our communities. At my home congregation, people with disabilities include a published author, an educator, a bank vice president, a rabbi, and several other people with interesting jobs and/or life stories. People who are different from me in other ways (older, younger, have funny accents not like my funny accent, different income or education level) are also fascinating once I stretch a little to meet them. All of them bring their own gifts to give to the congregation as members. Each of them brings a lot to the table as a potential friend, too.

February is Jewish Disabilities Month. We can look at that as a month to make ourselves more aware of barriers in our synagogues and institutions. Or we can look at it as a month to make ourselves more aware of the barriers in our hearts. Either way, this is the month to remove the stumbling blocks.

What if I Can’t Get to Synagogue?

Isolated House by Hugh Venables
“Isolated House” by Hugh Venables

Location and/or illness make it difficult for some Jews to get to synagogue. How in that situation are we to access Jewish community?

First, the offline solution: If you live in a city that has synagogues, but you just can’t access them, call the synagogue. Express your interest in being a part of their community. Ask to talk to the rabbi, and explain your situation. I can’t promise you that every synagogue will have outreach to shut-ins, but I can promise you that rabbis care about the Jews in their neighborhood. Understand that options may be limited for non-members. However, it is always worth contacting them.

Years ago, before I became a rabbi, my rabbi called me and asked if I would be willing to visit a widow in the congregation who had agoraphobia. Her husband had been her major tie to the world, and now that he was gone, my rabbi was worried about her. I began visiting Anne (not her real name) once a week and doing her grocery shopping. We developed a friendship. Later, when my schedule changed and I could not be as reliable for shopping, I went back to the rabbi and told him. He found someone else to visit, but Anne and I stayed in touch. (Note that this required a large enough community and a willing pool of volunteers; not every synagogue will be able to deliver on something like this.)

Second, the Internet raises many more opportunities for Jewish connections. Here are some resources to check out if you don’t live near a synagogue, or if you are confined to home by illness or disability:

OurJewishCommunity.org provides the most comprehensive online access to progressive services, rabbis, and Jewish community. Rabbi Laura Baum and Rabbi Robert Barr serve both OurJewishCommunity.org and the brick-and-mortar Congregation Beth Adam in Loveland, OH, near Cincinnati.

ReformJudaism.org maintains a list of congregations that live-stream Shabbat services, with information about access. Services are currently available in four US time zones (Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific) and at least one congregation archives services on YouTube.

JewishWebcasting.com offers a wide variety of Jewish experiences online, with links to news, podcasts, and opportunities for prayer.

Lehrhaus Judaica based in Berkeley, CA offers some of its classes online. Click this link to see the current list of courses on the Hebrew Language, Introduction to Judaism, Jewish texts, and other topics. (Full disclosure: I teach one of their online courses and am on the board of LJ.)

I hope that whatever your situation, and whether it is a short-term challenge or a long-term situation, you can find a way to connect Jewishly. Certainly I appreciate your readership and look forward to conversation in the comments on this blog!

First Night of Chanukah: Not What I Planned

#ChanukahBlackLivesMatterI’ve been at my desk all day, ignoring the obvious: my body is especially gimpy today. Staying at my desk was tempting because:

  1. I have a lot of work to do, most of it desk-work.
  2. At my desk, I can pretend I’m not having an arthritis flare, even though sitting for long periods will absolutely make the flare worse.
  3. I had an investment in pretending, because I wanted to go to San Francisco tonight to be part of the #BlackLivesMatter march.

Fortunately for me, I have a wise spouse, who watched me get up from my chair and said, “I wish you were not going to that march tonight. You are in no shape for it.” After some hemming and hawing, I had to admit she was right. Even on the scooter, I was not in shape to be out in the rain, in a big crowd, far from home.

Inside my head, I feel fabulous, energized, full of love and Torah after the past week of retreats and travel. In the rest of my body, I feel about 100 years old. This is just a fact of living in a body with arthritis, old injuries and a bunch of other problems.

Sometimes we have to accept things as they are, and be grateful for what is possible, rather than grumpy about what isn’t. I’m grateful for the people who love me enough to tell me when I’m over-reaching, because I often fail to notice until it’s too late.

I remind myself what Rabbi Tarfon is quoted as saying in Pirkei Avot: “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. However you are not free to desist from it.” We have to try, but we do not have to push past the limits of our ability. I can contribute more to #BlackLivesMatter right now by teaching and writing. That’s the fact of it.

Do you have limitations against which you chafe sometimes? How do you cope, and how do you comfort yourself?