Many congregants are a bit intimidated by their rabbis — not Shelley Cohen, not when it came to fighting for her son Nate, who suffered from Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a fatal genetic disease.
When Nate, who died in 2007 at age 21, approached bar mitzvah age, Cohen asked her rabbi at the Modern Orthodox Lincoln Square Synagogue to make the bima wheelchair-accessible.
“He said, ‘Look how much it will cost, I just don’t think we can do this,’” Cohen remembered, leaning forward gently but firmly to demonstrate just how she leaned on the rabbi. “I said, ‘I think you can.’” “He said, ‘But, it will be so difficult, it’s so expensive.’ And I just said, ‘I think you can. I think you can.’ And he did.”
She won that battle, but decades of losing ones inspired Cohen soon after Nate’s death to create the Jewish Inclusion Project, which trains rabbis on why and how to create synagogues, schools and summer camps that make people with disabilities and their families feel welcome. Now the program, presented for the first time in 2008 at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the liberal Orthodox rabbinical school in the Bronx, is poised to grow.
At the end of January, Cohen brought her project back to YCT. For four days, all day, YCT’s rabbinical students and their colleagues at Yeshivat Maharat, the school that trains Orthodox women to serve as congregations’ spiritual and halachic leaders, attended Cohen’s training: working in pairs, alternately bowing their heads over their texts and raising them to confer with each other or take a sip from a cup of tea, likely lukewarm.
Some of the texts were hard to accept.
“Sometimes we do have sources that are painful to read, and difficult to call part of our tradition,” said Raif Melhado, 30, a second-year YCT student who was grappling with a text that called a person who could neither hear nor speak a monkey. “Just because they’re uncomfortable doesn’t mean that they are bad.”
Of course, aspiring clergy often struggle with Jewish texts that strike contemporary minds as mean or exclusionary. Because of Cohen, they are facing these feelings about rulings relevant to people with disabilities, like whether a blind person can be called to the Torah. Her training also includes films, panel discussions and lectures both from people with disabilities and those who work with them, and role-playing.
YCT has offered Cohen’s program three times, and now she’s got the city’s other major seminaries in her sights. With a $25,000 grant from the Ruderman Family Foundation, a leading funder of disabilities services and advocacy in the Jewish world, she has arranged for consulting to help her figure out how to grow the project.
She’s already shopping the curriculum around to the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, which is Orthodox, although she hasn’t gotten invitations from any of them yet.
The Ruderman grant comes at a time when disability issues are becoming more prominent. The Foundation for Jewish Camp is mapping what services are available to children with disabilities at Jewish overnight camps in North America, and an educator recently announced plans for a pluralistic Manhattan day school for children with disabilities.
But there’s much to be done, Cohen said. How many synagogues have cups at their water fountains, so people in wheelchairs can drink, she asked rhetorically.
“The reality is, it’s still happening,” she said. “People who have a child with a disability are still not being included and are being ostracized by the community.”
Such situations highlight the need for Cohen’s training, said Jay Ruderman, president of his family’s foundation.
Many synagogues in the United States and Canada are hurting these days as congregational affiliation weakens, but he says clergy remain key figures.
“Rabbis are certain leaders, especially in the diaspora community,” Ruderman said. “So [we need] to have rabbis brought into the issue of inclusion, and to understand how to practice it, and how to speak to their congregations about it.”
The foundation connected Cohen with UpStart, an organization in the San Francisco area that helps Jewish nonprofits — clients include Moishe House — develop their mission, strategy and leadership. UpStart and Cohen will work together through a combination of Skype and visits.
Cohen, whose family focuses its own charitable donations around disability issues, will also support her own program, but would not specify the exact amount.
The rabbinical schools Cohen is approaching say they offer some version of Cohen’s training already.
At HUC-JIR, disability issues are “woven through” the school’s pastoral counseling classes; disability issues come up, for example, when talking about family systems, when something that is happening to one is happening to all, said Rabbi Nancy Wiener, who runs the Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling there.
JTS has held similar multi-day trainings to Cohen’s, but not for a few years.
“Before I came there was a good multi-day ‘mini-mester’ where the JTS community focused on disability; we’ve also focused on domestic violence and body issues,” said Rabbi Daniel Nevins, the dean of the rabbinical school. “There are so many important issues.”
And at YU’s RIETS, students take two yearlong courses that expose them to a range of issues facing particular groups in the community, including the physically and developmentally disabled, said spokesman Daniel Gordon.
But Cohen says if they were doing it right, she wouldn’t need to be doing what she is doing.
Christians have a different and often more effective model of serving people with disabilities, said Shelly Christensen, a Minneapolis-based Jewish professional who is the author of the “Jewish Community Inclusion Guide for People With Disabilities” and who also serves as a vice president of the religion and spirituality division of the American Association for People With Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.
In that community, people with disabilities are served by ministries, such as Joni and Friends and Friendship Ministries, that work with individuals to bring them into the congregation of their choice.
“They’re more about creating a community for the person who has a disability,” Christensen said. “Finding people to welcome them, to drive them to services, to really acknowledge their personhood. Jewish communities tend to see the disability first. It’s a generalization, and it’s not true for everyone, but this has been my experience.”
Both Rabbi Wiener and Rabbi Nevins said they feel there is more to be done to make their communities truly inclusive.
“We are doing some things but we’re certainly not doing enough,” said Rabbi Nevins. “I was inspired by what Shelley had to offer, and I plan to focus in a more sustained fashion on the opportunities and challenges of making our communities more inclusive. Gender is a big issue of ours. LGBT is a big issue of ours. We’ve been quite effective in our camping branch, but our training institutions could be doing a better job.”