Welcoming People Of All Abilities

Post by Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer, who directs Whole Community Inclusion at Jewish Learning Venture and is a teacher at Mishkan Shalom. She writes for the NY Jewish Week’s New Normal Blogging Disability and WHYY’s newsworks.

Welcoming People Of All Abilities: Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month “Learning In Pairs”

On a rainy February evening, I had the great pleasure of studying Jewish texts and personal narratives about how we treat, welcome and include people with disabilities with thoughtful members of the center city kehillah. Co-leading with my friend and colleague Rabbi Joel Seltzer of Ramah in the Poconos was great fun—Joel put together Biblical, Rabbinic and contemporary texts and I brought a number of blogs from Jewish people who are writing and speaking out about their disabilities and hopes for being in community.

Rabbi Joel began with some Biblical texts that many of us are familiar with—texts referencing Moses’ speech impediment and Leviticus 19:17 “Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind.” What happened when participants read and discussed the texts (and commentaries that Joel provided) together in chevruta, or learning pairs, is that the room came alive with the energy and insights of sharing. “I always thought ‘not putting the stumbling block’ was for the benefit of the blind person,” one participant explained. “I didn’t realize that it was about me and consciousness of my behavior.”

Through a series of rabbinic texts focusing on religious obligation and who is exempt, Rabbi Joel brought out the idea that our concept of “da’at”—Hebrew for “knowledge”—continues to expand. While in rabbinic times, people may not have been aware that someone who can’t communicate through speech is “in there,” now we know—from Helen Keller to Stephen Hawkins to ordinary people with disabilities like cerebral palsy and autism who communicate using electronic devices—that there are many modalities to express what one knows and feels.

I was able to share the voices of three of my favorite disability advocates: Jacob Artson, a young man who has autism and is non-verbal and has written about his experience feeling both welcomed and excluded in Jewish community; Rabbi Michael Levy, an Orthodox rabbi who is blind and is a founding member of Yad Hachazakah, the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, and Pam Schuller, a comedian and youth engagement professional who took the Jewish community by storm last summer with her riveting Eli Talk about growing up with Tourette Syndrome and her experience in the Jewish community.

After reading Pam’s recent Op-Ed piece, “I’m Not Your Mitzvah Project” and discussing the difference between “tolerating” vs. “valuing” a person, one participant shared that he personally struggled with knowing how to interact and support people with disabilities in his own family, including a grand-niece, but realized how essential it is to welcome and support people with disabilities both in our families and also in our synagogues.

I thanked him for sharing so beautifully and vulnerably about his not knowing. Most of us grew up without having these important conversations about disability and many of us grew up in a time when people with disabilities were sent away to institutions or were taught in a special education classroom in the basement of our schools that we never saw. We didn’t have opportunities to simply interact with our peers who have cognitive and/or physical differences from us. We need to have education, sharing and modeling of how to welcome and support—just saying that we are “inclusive” doesn’t give us the tools to make inclusion real.

Over the last month, I have had the privilege of working with synagogue executive directors, clergy, education directors, teen and community leaders on disability awareness and inclusion. I would so delighted to meet with you and your synagogue leaders to help make a plan for next steps about inclusion in your community—please contact me anytime.

Thank you to Miriam Steinberg-Egeth and Rabbi Jill Maderer for the opportunity to learn with the Center City Kehillah.