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.

Purim Resources

Rabbi Adar, Purim 2012
Rabbi Adar, Purim 2012

Purim’s coming at sundown on March 4, 2015! In preparation, here are some posts from years past with information and ideas about the holiday:

The Basics of Purim

Purim for Beginners

For Your Enjoyment: Purim Videos!

Purim for Grownups?

Purim has a Dark Side

What’s Shushan Purim?

What do you look forward to about Purim? Is there anything you’d prefer to skip?

 

 

A King in the Rabbi’s Garden

Monarch1
There is a miracle in this photo. Can you find it?

The photo above may look like a garden overgrown with milkweed. Look in the center of the photo, and you will see a tiny splash of orange. That little splash is a monarch butterfly, the third I have seen in my garden. I didn’t want to disturb him, and this is the best photo I could get. Still it is a miracle: this winter I’ve seen three monarchs in my garden!

Monarch butterflies used to be one of the great wonders of North America: clouds of them used to spend the winter on the California coast. There has been a dramatic decline in their numbers, because their larval food, Asclepias, or milkweed, is an unfashionable plant. Wild land is increasingly rare near the coast, and people are usually anxious to get milkweed out of their garden. The highway department has done its bit, too, with herbicides and plantings of prettier bushes near the freeways.

The monarch census at Pismo Beach, CA (1997-2009) is worrisome. Chart courtesy of www.monarchwatch.org
The monarch census at Pismo Beach, CA (1997-2009) is worrisome. Chart courtesy of http://www.monarchwatch.org

Now I’m part of a movement of people who are trying to restore the milkweed supply for the monarchs. My garden has several varieties of milkweed and no pesticides, herbicides, or chemical fertilizers. I haven’t seen the Monarch caterpillars, but now I’ve seen three butterflies. Other people in the San Francisco East Bay are also growing food for the monarchs. There’s hope.

There is a midrash that that when God showed Adam around the Garden of Eden, God said, “Look at My works. See how beautiful they are, how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil or destroy My world—for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13)

It is up to us to look around our corner of the world and see what we can do to repair its wounds. For each of us, that effort may take a different path, but it is important that each of us perform this mitzvah in whatever means is available to us. As Rabbi Tarfon said, we don’t have to finish the job, but we do have to make an effort.

I planted milkweed, lots of rangy plants with little blossoms . What a blessing, right before Shabbat, to receive a little messenger to tell me that it’s working!

Photo by Kenneth Dwayne Harrelson. For copyright info: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Monarch_In_May.jpg
Photo by Kenneth Dwayne Harrelson. For copyright info: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Monarch_In_May.jpg

Measles, and the Book of Job

One of the strangest books in the Bible is the Book of Job.

The book begins with God and Satan (“The Adversary” for Jews) having a little bet. God points out to Satan that Job is a really good guy. Satan retorts that Job is only good because God protects him.

“Stop protecting him,” taunts Satan, “And he’ll curse your Name.”

God says to Satan, “Do what you like! Just don’t kill him.”

So Satan showers troubles upon Job. He takes away Job’s wealth, kills his children, and destroys his health. But throughout it all, Job never curses God. Friends come to Job saying that he must have sinned and he must repent, but Job keeps insisting that he has done nothing wrong. Finally God appears in a whirlwind, declares them all fools, and Job collapses, declaring himself “dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6)

There’s a bit at the end of the book in which God gives Job new wealth, a nice new house, new children, and everything seems super. Most scholars agree that it seems to be a very late addition, as if someone later insisted on a Hollywood ending. Anyway, any parent will tell you that you cannot simply replace dead children and make it all better.

Job admits to us that sometimes life really, really stinks despite everything we do.

That is exactly why I think the book of Job ought to be read more often, and with greater attention. Tsuris (Yiddish for trouble) finds many people who don’t deserve it. This is a terrifying fact of life.

In our terror that tsuris will find us, we attempt to find reasons for bad luck. We ask the cancer patient if he smoked, we drive only “safe” cars, we explain every ill in terms of something that someone did wrong. But there is no vitamin, no regimen, no diet, no car, no product, no magic talisman that will keep all bad things from happening to us. We are human, and we are prone to trouble. (Job 5:7)

I am all for medicine, and science, and research, and doing what we can with our brains to make life easier, better, and longer. I wear my seatbelt, and I go for regular checkups. Certainly science has given us wonderful tools to reduce human misery. But it is arrogant foolishness to look at a suffering person and say, “I would not have made her mistakes” with its corollary “…so that will never happen to me.” It is arrogant foolishness and it is cruel.

The book of Job is an extraordinary admission in a book that often seems to say “Be good and you are guaranteed only good things.” Job admits that sometimes life stinks, no matter what we do.

The true comfort in Job is hidden in plain view. Job’s wife suffers all the same losses that Job did. She loses ten children to death. She, too, is reduced to poverty. She becomes the caretaker for a sick husband. And yet only once, early on, does she speak, and for that commentators have vilified her ever since:

“Do you still hang on to your integrity? Curse God and die!” – Job 2:9

She is standing by him, caring for him, watching him suffer, suffering herself, and her rage and pain erupt. Then we don’t hear another word from her. But at the end of the book, there she is, ready to bear ten more children. She loved him, and she stuck by him. Their covenant held solid. Archibald MacLeish got it right in the play J.B.: the answer to human misery is love.

We can’t avoid all tsuris in this life, but we can stand by one another in times of trouble. We can do that individually and we can do it communally. When I hear a parent worrying about vaccines and autism, one of the things I hear is a person who is terrified of parenting a challenged child in a society that doesn’t give a damn. Does that make it right to withhold vaccines? Of course not. But isn’t it understandable, once the seed of doubt is planted?

My children received every shot the doc prescribed. I have begged young parents not to be fooled by the anti-vaccine nonsense. But I think this terrible measles outbreak points to something we need to consider as a society: when people have troubles, we often abandon them. We assure ourselves that it must be their fault. We worry about freeloaders. We worry about frauds and fakers. And people with genuine trouble, people who have been given steep challenges are left to become homeless, to starve, to struggle with impossible scenarios.

Mention “disability” and someone will pipe up about fakers. Mention “food stamps” and someone will tell you about frauds. Mention “homelessness” and some helpful soul will tell you it’s really about moral degeneracy, and drugs, and mental illness – and mention “mental illness” and someone will say that poor parenting is to blame.

Real people sometimes have real troubles and need help. We have to find our way out of the morass of fear, selfishness and arrogance and deal with that fact.  May that day come soon.

May we all have mercy on one another.

For chapter and verse on what Jewish tradition has to say about vaccination, I recommend an article in Tablet: If Jenny McCarthy Were Jewish by Rebecca Einstein Schorr.  Rabbi Schorr is a colleague and friend with her feet firmly planted in Jewish tradition and a poignant stake in the discussion.

 

Thou Shalt Not Embarrass

.תני תנא קמיה דרב נחמן בר יצחק: כל המלבין פני חבירו ברבים כאילו שופך דמים

One who embarrasses another in public, it is as if that person shed blood.

– Babylonian Talmud, Bava Mezia 58b

Imagine for a moment that you are in a synagogue, somewhere that every Jew should feel at home. The service is ending, and for the past several minutes your body has been sending increasingly urgent messages that you need to find a bathroom. You spot the restroom and as you place your hand on the door, three people behind you shriek “NO!!!” and everyone in earshot turns to look at you.

Just sit with that thought, with those feelings, for a moment.

A number of people I care about live with the possibility that this could happen to them at any moment, anywhere. Some are transgender, some are butch lesbians, some are straight but they don’t look stereotypically masculine or feminine.

Let me give you a clue: they are all human beings, made in the Divine Image.

A dear woman-friend of mine looks great in a suit. She dresses much better than do I. But there’s a look she gets on her face when someone has humiliated her at the door of the “ladies room” that I recognize in a heartbeat. I recognize it because I’ve seen it too many times.

I know a nice transman who dreads public bathrooms. He does everything in his power to avoid needing to use one, because no matter which one he goes to, someone may decide loudly that it’s the wrong one. He’s been lucky, no one has beaten him up. But the pain in his voice when he told me why he was visibly upset made me want to weep.

They aren’t the only ones, just two who are close enough to me that I am aware of their hurt. It doesn’t really matter what their gender is. Someone decides that they “don’t look right” and suddenly it’s open season. They look different, so it’s OK to humiliate them.

Jewish tradition tells us that we are forbidden to embarrass another person. It tells us that embarrassing another is the equivalent of shedding their blood. That commandment does not go away simply because the other person’s appearance makes us uncomfortable. I am not permitted to humiliate a human being because something about them is outside my experience.

“But what about danger?” some may ask, “What about men pretending to be trans so they can hang out in the ladies room and attack women?”

People who want to use the privacy of a bathroom to hurt other people go in there and lurk. They hide. They linger. They do not go in, pee, wash their hands, and leave. If you go into a restroom (either one) and see someone lurking, do the smart thing and LEAVE. Go tell someone with authority if you are worried. Don’t stand there and shriek. After all, if you are right and they are dangerous, they might hurt you!

Please, especially in places that should be safe for every Jew, don’t humiliate people in or out of the restroom. Embarrassing them does not make any of us safer.

If I were queen, I would put this sign up outside every restroom. Kudos to the University of Bristol’s (UB) LGBT + Society for this image:

transUB

Meet Rabbi Tarfon

Rabbi Tarfon's Grave (credit: www.pnay.co.il)
Rabbi Tarfon’s Grave (credit: http://www.pnay.co.il)

Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short, the task is great, the laborers are lazy, the wage is abundant and the master is urgent. …You do not have to finish the task, but you are not free to give up. If you have studied much Torah much reward will be given you, for your employer is faithful, and he will pay you the reward of your labor. And know that the reward for the righteous shall be in the time to come.  – Avot 2.20-21

Rabbi Tarfon is one of my favorites among the ancient sages. He was a rabbi of the generation between the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE) and the defeat of the Bar Kochba Revolt (135 CE), a time of great upheaval for the Jewish People. Both of his parents were from priestly families, and he himself served in the Temple as a young man. More than one story about him mentions that his family was rich and that he enjoyed the “perks” that came from being a kohen.

However, Tarfon seems to have been a modest, empathetic man who had genuine concern for the poor. Whenever he received pidyon haben, ritual ransom money paid the priests to “redeem” first born sons, he returned it to the new parents. When he saw a bridal procession of very poor people, he asked his mother and sister to take their perfumes and cosmetics and offer them to the bride. He was creative: during a time of famine, he negotiated betrothals with 300 women so that he could legally share his tithes of priestly food with them!

Tarfon often disputed with Akiva, and he usually lost the argument.

One time they were sitting with other rabbis in an upper room in Lod, and they were asked: “Which is greater, study or action?” Tarfon answered, saying: “Action is greater.” Akiva answered, saying: “Study is greater.” All the rest agreed with Akiva that study is greater than action because it leads to action.” –Kiddushin 40b

However, he was good spirited about such things, valuing learning over ego.

Another time, Rabbi Akiva, who was poor, asked him for money, saying he had a good investment for Tarfon. Tarfon gave him the money. Later on, he found out that Akiva had given it all away to needy people. Akiva quoted Psalms, reminding him that such gifts are an “everlasting possession.” Tarfon hugged and kissed Akiva, saying, “My teacher and leader! My teacher in wisdom and my leader in conduct.”

On another occasion, when he lost an argument with Akiva, he said, “Happy may be Abraham our father, having such a son as Akiba; Tarfon saw and forgot, but Akiba understood of his own accord. Whosoever parts with you, Akiba, parts with life itself!”

The Talmud tells us that he was very loving to his wife and his children, and fond of his mother. One source tells us that he was murdered by the Romans for teaching Torah.

His most famous quotation is the one at the top of this page. He understood that it can be very stressful to live a life of Torah, that the expectations are high. At the same time, we can take comfort in knowing that effort and persistence are good in and of themselves.

I like to imagine Rabbi Tarfon teaching a student who is perhaps not as quick as the others. “Don’t worry, I see that you are making the effort!” he might say. Rabbi Tarfon understood what it was not to be the smartest guy in the room. He understood that a person’s worth lay in their character – as did his.