August 28, 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington, a landmark event in the struggle for civil rights for blacks and economic opportunity for disadvantaged Americans. At the conclusion of the event, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rallied the participants with a speech that has come to be known as “I Have a Dream.” He longed for the day when all Americans could proclaim “free at last.”
Fifty years later, much progress has been made, but much more needs to be done.
I Also Have a Dream
My dream is to make the following passage from this week’s Torah portion a reality for all Jews:
“Surely this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach It is not in heaven, so that you need to ask ‘Who will ascend to heaven and get it for us, proclaiming it to us so that we may obey it? Nor is it across the sea, so that you need to ask ‘Who will cross the sea and get it for us, proclaiming it to us so that
we may obey it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.” (Deuteronomy 30, 11-14.)
If you substitute “up two flights of stairs” for “heaven,” and “not available in sign language or in a format that I can read or understand” for “across the sea,” then it becomes clear that much more needs to be done to make the above passage a reality for Jews with disabilities.
While Judaism concentrates on obligations, access to Jewish knowledge is the birthright of every Jew: “Moses instructed us with Torah; (it is) a heritage of the Congregation of Jacob.”
Other minorities have struggled for equality, bringing their cause to national attention. Taking our cue from these minorities, we need to work towards making inclusion and participation an ongoing concern, to be addressed in meaningful ways that lead to change, on the agenda of major Jewish denominations and organizations.
I dream of the day when it will be second nature to accommodate Jews with disabilities when building a school or synagogue, disseminating information in books, hand-outs and lectures, conducting conferences and events, and
celebrating life cycle milestones. It may take a long time, but we will some day proclaim “Free to participate in Jewish life, free from barriers — at last!”
A native of Bradley Beach, New Jersey, Rabbi Michael Levy attributes his achievements to God’s beneficence and to his courageous parents. His parents supported him as he explored his small home town, visited Israel and later studied at Hebrew University, journeyed towards more observant Judaism, received rabbinic ordination, obtained a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University and lectured on Torah- and disability-related topics.
As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah — the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center (www.yadempowers.org), Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons –boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org