When 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.
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:
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!
I’ve been at my desk all day, ignoring the obvious: my body is especially gimpy today. Staying at my desk was tempting because:
I have a lot of work to do, most of it desk-work.
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.
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?
As a fellow blogger wrote, “If only it were so simple…”
Depending on the kind of mental illness and its severity, it might be like the cartoon below: feel the storm coming and hunker down. But there are other possibilities:
— Feeling the storm coming, and work frantically to batten down the hatches with the meds at hand before chaos…
— No warning, just the storm arrives, and there is nothing in the larder, no time to cancel, just SPLAT and then aftermath for a while…
— Or the storm arrives and passes…. and you wake up with your life in disarray, the house in need of Crime Scene Cleaners, your bank account empty and half your friends furious for mysterious reasons.
I know folks for whom each of those scenarios has happened. So if you have a friend with mental illness, be kind. If you are one of us, know that you aren’t alone, even if it feels like it. (And thanks, comic artist, for a great cartoon!)
I have two black dogs. One makes me laugh, and one makes me cry.
This is Jojo. Sometimes we refer to her as Jojo the Clown, because she makes my entire family laugh. She has a dance that she does when she sees new people or favorite people, aka “the Jojo dance,” which consists of her front paws doing a waltz and her back paws doing the Charleston. Someday I need to stop laughing long enough to make a video.
Jojo is a rescue dog. She languished at her foster home, waiting for new people. The old people had gotten sick and had to give her up. After months of being passed over (something that often happens to black dogs) she became depressed. For comfort, she stole food from the other dogs, and her normally 9 pound body ballooned to 15. When Linda and I met her, she was a sad little depressed dog. She lay there, looking sad until I picked her up. Then she peed all over me.
I immediately identified with Jojo; we both had “black dogs.” That was what Winston Churchill called depression: his black dog. I have that kind of black dog, too, and from time to time it sticks to my heels like glue. Lately, I have been visited by Black Dog #2. (Jojo is Black Dog #1 – of course she is #1 – she makes me laugh.)
When Jojo got a home, and the right meds, she returned to the self she was meant to be. And I find her encouraging during my spells with Black Dog #2. If Jojo could learn to dance again, so can I.
Part of recovery is following doctor’s orders and taking my meds. And part of it is immersing myself in the home of my heart: Judaism. Judaism teaches me in my morning prayers, “The soul … within me is pure.” I’m not bad, even if I feel bad. Moreover, I can do good: I can do mitzvot. I can study texts, I can pray, I can give tzedakah, I can teach my students, and I can relieve suffering (in small ways). Like Jojo, I can rejoice in having a home, even if “rejoicing” consists of eating good things and staying in touch with loved ones until I feel like more strenuous rejoicing.
Judaism teaches me that when God finished Creation, God saw that it was “tov me’od,” – it is very good. All of it. Including a certain depressed rabbi.
I am writing about this because I know that some of my readers, some whom I don’t even know, also suffer from depression. You aren’t alone, just as I am not alone. There are lots of us. And with the right help, and doing mitzvot (eating right, following doctor’s orders, getting outside ourselves to do mitzvot for others) it will be OK.
It is the tough weeks when I am most grateful for being a Jew. I have a storehouse of wisdom saved up for me by the Jews of the past: the Torah, the Tanakh (Bible), the Mishnah and the Gemara, and wise words written by centuries of wise Jews. Even when I can’t get it together to study them, I can see them there on my shelves: centuries of faith, seeking to do good.
The Lord said to Moses,“Say to Aaron: ‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God.No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed;1no man with a crippled foot or hand,or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles.No descendant of Aaron the priest who has any defect is to come near to present the food offerings to the Lord. He has a defect; he must not come near to offer the food of his God.He may eat the most holy food of his God, as well as the holy food;yet because of his defect, he must not go near the curtain or approach the altar, and so desecrate my sanctuary. I am the Lord, who makes them holy.’” – Leviticus 21: 16-23
These words from parashat Emor are troubling. This is a commandment given concerning the kohanim, the priests of the Temple. It seems to say that anyone blind, lame, disfigured, or deformed is not as good as a “whole” person. It seems to say, “We won’t starve you – you have a right to live! – but we ask that you keep out of sight. You are not good enough to serve in the Temple.”
And indeed, there is a long sad history of human beings saying exactly that to family and community members who were physically or mentally different. Stay out of sight – or at least keep your disability out of sight. This attitude has also taken the form of pretending that disabled people are invisible. And sadly, these verses from the Torah seem to support the notion that the best thing we disabled folk can do is to stay out of sight.
For years, I hid my own disability when it came time to lead services, despite the fact that standing for any length of time gave me excruciating pain. I got the idea from this Torah portion that a person who was leading services should be physically perfect, and that if I needed a cane or a wheelchair to function, then I was not fit to lead a service. As a result, I was not at my best on the bimah (the raised area from which services are led.) I was fuzzy minded, clouded with pain. I mispronounced words. I forgot things. I did not give the congregation the leadership it deserved. Eventually, I decided that I should not be a congregational rabbi, because of the disability I struggled to hide.
I have changed my mind about all of it. First of all, there can be strength and beauty in the prayers of a person who sits in a chair or holds a cane. I know, because I have seen it.
Secondly, I look at the historical context of this commandment. Other ancient cultures exposed (killed) infants who were deemed defective. Even Plato says that in an ideal community, infants with defects would not be allowed to live. So anyone with a congenital disability was deemed unworthy to live: compared to that attitude, saying, “You can eat the holy food, but don’t serve at the altar” seems like a big step forward.
Third, we can look at the interpretation of the tannaim, the earliest rabbis who actually recalled a time when the Temple was standing. In Mishnah Megillah 4.7, Rav Yehudah says that a kohen with stains on his hands also may not give the priestly blessing, “because people would be inclined to stare.” If in fact the reason for keeping the kohanim with visible “defects” from the Temple service was that “people will stare” then it suggests that the problem is not in the disability, but in the reactions of the public to disabilities. Later rabbis went even further: in the Gemara, Megillah 24b, they say that if the kohen is known locally, and “people are used to him,” then there is no impediment to his participating in the service.
This clearly locates the problem with the distraction of the congregation. The kohen may not serve publicly if his disability makes it impossible for the congregation to concentrate.
In this day and time, since we know that it is wrong to discriminate against those with disabilities, this is a red herring. If I am “distracted” by someone’s race, or accent, or the wheelchair they use, it is my task to “get over it” – or more accurately, to get over myself. It is not fair, it is downright wrong, for me to say to anyone, “Don’t lead services, your disability is distracting.”
So if the literal understanding of this verse does not hold up to scrutiny, if a physical disability should no longer prevent someone from serving, what “defects” should keep one from publicly leading a service? Further on in tractate Megillah 29a:
Bar Kappara gave the following exposition: What is the meaning of the verse, “Why look ye askance, ye mountains of peaks, at the mountain which God has desired for His abode?” (Psalm 68:17) A heavenly voice went forth and said to them: “Why do you look askance at Sinai? Ye are all full of blemishes as compared with Sinai. It is written here “with peaks” and it is written elsewhere “hunchbacked or a dwarf.” (Leviticus 21:20) R. Ashi observed: You can learn from this that if a man is arrogant, this is a blemish in him.
The Psalmist asks why the greatest mountains, with beautiful peaks, look disapprovingly at little Mt. Sinai. The heavenly voice retorts, “Why are you criticizing Sinai? You are all full of blemishes!” Bar Kappara is drawing a parallel between the beautiful tall mountains looking down at Sinai, and the beautiful human beings looking down at a hunchback or a dwarf. Indeed, says Rav Ashi, the real blemish is arrogance.
Thus while this passage appears to reek of old prejudices – and in fact it may represent an old, bad solution to the problem of ableism – further study in the Oral Torah reveals it to be something quite different. If the real blemish is arrogance, then the arrogant may not lead services – but we’ll still feed them.
When I got the notice about the Women’s Rabbinic Network trip to the Art Institute of Chicago, my first reaction was pure joy: I have loved that museum since I was a grad student in Chicago in 1980. I spent many a happy Sunday afternoon as a student strolling down those endless rooms, hanging out with one masterpiece after another.
Then I remembered: endless rooms! vast halls! It was then that I decided I was definitely bringing the scooter to Chicago with me. I couldn’t imagine creeping along on a cane, sweating, too distracted by pain to enjoy the place: no way.
So this morning I scooted down to breakfast, and met the group in the lobby. We all strolled together from the hotel to the museum. (The sidewalks could use a little work here, Mayor Emanuel!) It was a lovely day, brisk and bright, and I felt like I owned the city. How glorious to buzz down the sidewalk, chatting with friends!
We arrived at the new wing of the museum, which is mostly very accessible. I noticed a few things that might be difficult for some people: heavy bathroom doors, mostly, but the gallery area and the restaurant were great. The elevators were huge, and had I needed to reach a button, it would have been easy.
We looked at very recent modern art made by women artists, and our guide was great at helping us to really see the works. My only gripe was that our time with the art was short – we had a meeting with a wonderful scholar in the restaurant! But that was good too – for more about that, check out Four Cups, another entry in this blog.
After lunch, I took my own route home, stopping in the Museum Shop to buy a gift. I enjoyed the fact that I still felt so energetic, and that tucking a little package into my bag was not a problem. I felt so free.
I’m not going to bore you with days and days of blogging about this. If something interesting happens, I’ll tell you. But I think mostly this is about emerging from my personal Egypt, a narrow place of pain and self-imposed isolation. The world is bigger now, and I am free.