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!

Reform Jews Outside the USA?

World Union for Progressive Judaism logo

  • Maybe you’re planning a trip to Europe or Latin America.
  • Maybe your company is moving you to Australia for a year.
  • Maybe you’re a student looking at a year of study abroad.
  • Maybe you live outside North America and want to find a progressive Jewish congregation.
  • Or maybe you’re interested in supporting the growth of progressive Judaism worldwide.

Any of these are good reasons to get acquainted with a wonderful resource, the World Union for Progressive Judaism. The WUPJ has member congregations in more than 45 countries, congregations from Progressive, Liberal, Reform and Reconstructionist traditions. It also has a congregational directory on its website with contact information and website addresses for many progressive synagogues around the world. In other words, you can use the WUPJ website to find a congregational “home away from home” if you are a Reform or Reconstructionist Jew from North America.

Why get in touch with a congregation when you are overseas? It is a wonderful way to transcend the boundaries of being a foreigner or a tourist. Years ago, I visited London for about a week. Knowing I would be there over Shabbat, I looked on the WUPJ website and read up on the congregations in London. I called the Liberal Jewish Synagogue to inquire about Shabbat services. Long story short, Shabbat morning I joined them for a wonderful service and kiddush. I met some lovely people and the Jewish world expanded for me that day. For the morning, I was less of a foreigner, because I was with fellow Jews.

It’s important to contact congregations ahead of time, because they may have security requirements for visitors. Unfortunately anti-Semitism is on the rise in many parts of the world, so congregations may need advance warning, to be sure that prospective visitors are friendly.

If you are going to visit Israel, you should know about the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. The IMPJ has over 30 member congregations around Israel as well as a growing network of schools, educational and community centers. Israeli Reform congregations welcome visitors – again, it helps to give some advance notice. As with the WUPJ, there is a directory of congregations on the website.

For North Americans, visiting progressive congregations away from home can offer both a sense of familiarity and some surprises. For instance, we are accustomed to at least some of the service being in the vernacular. In the US and much of Canada that means English. However, in the Netherlands, the vernacular is Dutch. In Russia, it’s Russian. And in Israel, the entire service is in Hebrew, because the language of everyday life is Hebrew!

Lastly, perhaps you are not planning to travel, but you are looking for a way to support liberal egalitarian Judaism in the world as part of your tzedakah budget. The WUPJ and IMPJ websites are a great place to begin your research for a good match.

The B’not Mitzvah of Vegas

B'not Mitzvah
B’not Mitzvah Class with Cantor Jessica Nicole Hutchings and Rabbi Sanford Akselrad (photo courtesy of Julie Barto Fisher)

Wanted to have a bat mitzvah but the family said no? Were you a Catholic when you were 13? Or was your bar mitzvah an awful thing and you wish you could have a do-over?

Or would you just like to expand your Jewish horizons and capabilities?

This past Shabbat I had the pleasure of attending an Adult B’not Mitzvah (that’s Daughters of the Commandment, plural) at Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson, NV, next door to Las Vegas. I was the Visiting Assistant Rabbi there from 2008-2011, and it will always be close to my heart. Word arrived that a class of seven women would celebrate the keystone of their Adult Bat Mitzvah studies on December 12. I immediately wrote to Rabbi Sanford Akselrad asking if I could attend (professional courtesy) and he wrote back inviting me to be the guest preacher for services the evening before. I had a lovely, lovely Shabbat, touching base with old friends.

I’ve written before that it’s not too late to experience most aspects of Jewish growing-up. Many adults didn’t have a formal bar or bat mitzvah for various reasons. In truth, anyone officially Jewish and over the age of 13 is a bar or bat mitzvah. Long ago, this rite of passage from childhood to responsibility for the commandments began to be marked, for boys, by a reading from the Torah or Haftarah and a service, followed by a celebration. In March 1922, Judith Kaplan led the first American Bat Mitzvah service. However, even as late as the 1960’s they were fairly unusual, so many adult Jewish women haven’t had that opportunity. And of course, anyone who was Catholic or Buddhist at age 13 didn’t celebrate a Jewish milestone at that age.

Bar/Bat Mitzvah is not a party, nor is it a service. It’s really a process of study, learning some Hebrew, learning about Judaism, and becoming more knowledgeable and capable as a Jewish adult, culminating in a synagogue service. For adults who go through the process, it generally takes two years of work. I knew several of the women who celebrated this past weekend, and I was impressed at how much they have grown in their Jewish capabilities over this process. They inspire me to keep on with my studies, to continue to grow as a Jew, because we are never done learning.

If you have a hankering to read from the Torah, to lead a service, or just to learn a lot of great Jewish learning, talk with your rabbi about an adult bar or bat mitzvah. As Hillel asked us so long ago, If not now, when? (Avot 1.14)

Julie Arnold chants the final verses of Genesis 40.
Julie Arnold chants the final verses of Genesis 40.

A grammatical note: Bar Mitzvah is “son of the commandment.” Bat Mitzvah is “daughter of…” B’nei Mitzvah are “sons of…” or “children of…” and B’not Mitvah is “daughters of …” Learning a little Hebrew is always a good thing.

Why is the Synagogue So Expensive?

Temple_Israel_Memphis_Chapel
Temple Israel, Memphis, TN

Why is synagogue membership so expensive?

• Synagogues run on membership subscriptions because that allows for predictable cash flow and budgeting.  Every synagogue has its own formula for setting dues.

• Costs vary by the cost of living in an area, by the size of the staff (salaries are usually the biggest single budget item) and by the services offered. A small synagogue that rents a room in a local strip mall one day a week and has no rabbi can operate very cheaply, and it will have low dues. It may be a wonderful Jewish community, but it will not be able to offer many things that people want from a synagogue.

• IMPORTANT: Most synagogues offer “dues relief” when needed. If you want to join a synagogue with dues of $2000 a year, and you can’t afford it, say so! Please do not assume that you are not wanted, or that it is a synagogue only for “rich people.” Explain that you want to belong to the synagogue, but that that amount will not fit into your budget. They will usually have a way to meet you at a level you can afford.

• Sometimes people ask why they should pay for services they don’t personally use. For instance, why should I pay the full membership rate when I don’t have children in religious school?  Educating the children of our community about Torah is a basic Jewish value, and it is the responsibility not just of the parents, but of the whole community. If you think the synagogue is spending your dues on something foolish or unfair, talk with a member of the board and learn about who uses that program and why it is a priority. If you still think it foolish, you can talk to more board members about examining those priorities.

• They call it a “membership” because you become a member. Once you join, at whatever dues level, you are not merely a consumer. Look for ways to keep expenses low by being a good member: cleaning up your messes, helping with set up and clean up, serving on committees, volunteering, and participating in events like congregational meetings and fundraising.

For more about how to be happy with the synagogue you join, I’ve written How to Succeed at Congregational Life: Ten Tips.

I have a bias on this subject: I don’t work for one, but I’ve been a member of a synagogue for twenty years. When there’s trouble, I call the rabbis; when I have good news, I share it with friends there. My beloved and I were married there. It is my Jewish family, my first and primary tie to the larger Jewish world.

Don’t let sticker shock drive you away! There are ways to make it work. Synagogue membership is one of the great bargains around.

Are You Curious About Judaism?

A Jewish group studying text together
Class with Rabbi Adar

Are you curious about Judaism? Interested in getting a basic introduction to the subject? Considering conversion, or just want to figure out your in-laws?  It’s that time of year again, folks – “Intro” classes are beginning in many synagogues!

I teach two such classes in the East Bay Area of CA: “Exploring Judaism” starts this Sunday at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA. The class meets for an hour each Sunday, starting at 10:10am. For more information, click on the link which will take you to the registration page. My other class “Intro to the Jewish Experience” will begin October 22 at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, CA. That class meets for an hour and a half on Wednesday evenings, starting at 7:30pm. For more information or to sign up, check out the class page in the online Lehrhaus Judaica catalog.

Don’t live in Berkeley or Lafayette? Check with your local synagogue or Jewish Federation to find out what classes are starting in your area.

Some concerns I hear every year:

  • Will you expect me to convert? [No]
  • Will you burn me at the stake because I’m L, G, B, or T? [No, I’m a lesbian myself.]
  • Will you be mad if I don’t believe in God? [No, we’ll talk about the many different Jewish ideas about God.]
  • What are you “selling,” rabbi? [Nothing other than a learning experience.]
  • This class is very expensive! [If it is too much for you, say so. Financial aid is often available.]

If you have questions or needs, speak up. This is your first lesson in Jewish community.

My classes have multiple entry points. If not now, maybe then! Get in touch for more information.

I hope that you find an “Intro” class in your area! If you will be taking one of mine, feel free to leave a comment and say “Hi!”