On February 15, 1990, I woke up to the news that my father had succumbed to cancer. I felt adrift, like a 3-year-old searching for a parent….

Reaching Out

Jewish Law calls a person in this shocked and bewildered state an “onain.” S/he is exempt from reciting prayers and blessings. Time and attention are devoted exclusively to funeral and burial preparations.

My family met to discuss the funeral and to cling to each other. It was a comfort to me that we could participate in mourning rituals (preparing a burial plot and eulogy, weeping for the departed, and marking the gravesite,) whose origins dated in some cases as far back as 3,500 years. I gathered the prayers I would be reciting from a braille volume at the funeral, and composed a eulogy.

At the Funeral Home and Graveside

As I recited “Blessed Is the Lord, Ruler of the Universe, the true Judge,” I (with some help) ripped my shirt with a knife, a symbol of intense bereavement. I wore this shirt during the entire Shiva week.

In my eulogy I compared my father to a busy captain of a giant ocean liner, who nevertheless always sounded the ship’s whistled and waved to his children when he was near their shore. Even when he was occupied with business affairs, we always knew that we were at the center of our father’s life.

At the frigid gravesite, I had to rub my hands together so that I could feel the Braille prayers, concluding with Kaddish. An unknown hand guided me to the shovel with which I participated in the burial.

Grieving as a Person with a Disability

For too many Jews with disabilities, architectural, transportation and communications barriers diminish the degree to which they can be sustained by Jewish mourning practices. Can a person who rarely leaves home reach the funeral chapel and graveside? Is there a procedure by which a wheelchair user can approach the casket at the funeral home and cemetery? In what manner should a person who is deaf, or a person with a severe speech impediment eulogize the deceased? How can you assist in the burial process if you can’t move your hands? What about a person who, though nonverbal, has a lot to share in his/her eulogy?

There are solutions to the issues just raised. They cannot be implemented unless they are discussed well in advance of the day of the funeral.

That’s why Sharon Shapiro and I ofYad Hachazakah, the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, welcomed a visit from Bill Greenbaum, a Community Relations representative of the Manhattan-based Plaza Jewish Community Chapel. WE discussed accommodating Jews with disabilities during bereavement, mourning and consolation.

We discovered that teamwork is essential. We the disabled can advise the funeral establishment about minimizing or removing barriers, and techniques and technology to maximize our participation during the sad but inevitable part of the life cycle. Funeral establishments can advise us about finding accessible chapels and cemeteries, and about being part of a funeral even if not physically present at the gravesite.

For non-disabled and disabled Jews alike, bereavement comes suddenly and unpredictably. We who are disabled know well that for us, preparation and planning for important lifecycle events — even for sad ones–is crucial. Guided by clergy and the funeral establishment, we can spare ourselves the added stress of being unprepared.

During the week of shiva, visitors say to the bereaved “May God comfort you among the rest of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” It is a great consolation to me that however God brings comfort, no barriers exist between Him and the human soul.

Rabbi Michael Levy: As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah, the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, 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, N.Y. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to email him.