Editor's Note: As part of our series on UJA-Federation's Synagogue Inclusion Project, we are sharing Rabbi Linda Goodman's Rosh Hashanah sermon focusing on Union Temple's experience in the project.
We don’t know all that much about Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah, but we might imagine that after the Akedah, he was traumatized, to say the least. And in fact, he went on to live a rather undistinguished life, living in many ways in his father’s shadow. But, he married a nice young woman, with whom he raised two sons. He accumulated some wealth. But all in all, a weak and ineffectual character. Toward the end, he went blind. He was disabled – and needed his sons to take care of him. Yet, as we know, even in his blindness he had the capacity for great blessing – and through his blessing, he ultimately charted the course of our history as a people.
If Isaac, magically, were to appear at our door this Rosh Hashanah, how would he fare? He was one of the three patriarchs of our people. Would he find a place of comfort in our congregational home?
“You shall not insult the deaf, nor place a stumbling block before the blind.” We will read it in our Torah portion on Yom Kippur Afternoon. So how effectively have we removed the stumbling blocks: for people with poor vision, people with limited mobility, people whose perception styles do not conform to what we used to think of as “the norm?” Isaiah teaches us: “My house shall be called a House of Prayer for all peoples. . .” And so we ask ourselves, is our house truly a house of prayer for all peoples?
About a year and a half ago, our congregation set out on a journey-– a journey which will be ongoing in the coming years. Thanks to the efforts of Mindy Sherry, our Director of Youth and Family Engagement, our application was accepted to join a cohort of six congregations on this extremely important journey. The journey was funded by UJA-Federation of New York, with additional funding from the Leo Oppenheimer & Flora Oppenheimer Haas Foundation. The grant we received was for a pilot program called “The Synagogue Inclusion Project.” I’ve mentioned it in various bulletin articles, and we have talked about it at various times throughout the temple. But in case you missed it, here is a bit of background.
The Synagogue Inclusion Project is a groundbreaking 18-month pilot program, to formulate an approach toward integrating members of our community with disabilities. In addition to Union Temple, the pilot synagogue cohort included: Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan, Temple Beth Emeth v’Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek, over in Kensington, Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale, the Park Slope Jewish Center, and Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale. Obviously, a combination of large, small, urban and suburban, Reform and Conservative. What we shared was the desire to be more inclusive of people with disabilities. The 18-month process has taken us through evaluations of attitudes, facilities, focus groups, website evaluations, field trips, educator training programs, conferences, and personalized coaching for clergy, staff and lay leadership. The efforts were supported by the nonprofit disability group RespectAbility, led by Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, along with Shelley Cohen, Meagan Buren and the organization called MATAN, whose mission it is to educate Jewish leaders, educators and communities, empowering them to create learning environments supportive of children with special needs.
At one of the preliminary meetings of our committee, Shelley Cohen walked with us through our building with an iPad recorder. She noticed doors that opened and closed on each other; steps in areas that are supposed to be flat; signage that did not clearly indicate where the handicapped accessible restroom is located, and additional stumbling blocks, which I’ll mention shortly.
Shelley lives in Manhattan, and belongs to the Lincoln Square Synagogue on the West Side. What makes her such an expert? Life makes her an expert. Her son Nathaniel, now deceased, unfortunately, spent his life dealing with the effects of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, which forced him to use a wheelchair when he became quadriplegic.
And now, I have my own mechilah to do. Because in thinking about Shelley, and all the responsibilities that she has had to shoulder in her life, I found myself thinking at first blush – “Oh – that’s why she has studied this situation so thoroughly – to help her son.” And a similar thought about Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, whose child has various disabilities. “That’s why she’s doing this.” And then, I overheard myself. “Really? You mean, sensitivity to the needs of people with disabilities is only for those who live with disabilities? No one else needs to be concerned?” It’s not that we’re insensitive or unfeeling. Of course we’re all sensitive people, and capable of great compassion. It’s just that there are so many things in life that compete for our attention, that unless something absolutely gets in our face and demands that we see and understand, it’s just too easy for us to pass by, without really even noticing. That’s the way it is, often, for people with disabilities. . . But we are all vulnerable. Obviously, none of us wants anything to happen to us, or to anyone we care about. But sometimes, it does.
Some of you may remember my mom, Jeanette, aleha hashalom. For about ten years, she fought mightily against the ravages of Parkinson’s Disease. But in her last year or two, she too needed a wheelchair to get around. And she used to come down here with her aide on the Holidays and sit right over there on the aisle. She had a great career as a school teacher, and as my mom, and then, there she was. . . We all wish for a long, happy, and healthy life. And why not. But none of us is immune.
So here’s what we’ve accomplished so far at Union Temple, through direct use of the grant money:
–Sensitivity training for our teachers to help them understand and work with sensory and attention issues;
–We now have a Hebrew specialist to work one-on-one with students who can benefit from individual guidance and tutoring;
–We have developed a highly specific student learning questionnaire, so that our parents can help us understand their children’s needs and learning styles more completely;
–For Bar/Bat Mitzvah training, we’ve always have had high standards, and we’re maintaining them. But we have come to understand that each student needs to have their bar/bat mitzvah, and approach their studies and tweak the service in a way that is most helpful to promoting their own sense of accomplishment. This includes a new computer program that will enable me, and all those involved with every student– to remain connected at all times, particularly the students;
–Come this November at our First Friday Family Service – that’s on November 4th – we will roll out for the first time, our new Visual Tefila, which we have purchased from the CCAR. Visual T’filah™ utilizes contemporary technology– projectors and screens–to display liturgy with art and other visual imagery. It’s not just a “PowerPoint service,” but draws forth elements from our history and tradition that were sacrificed when other technologies emerged. It allows us to incorporate into the service — art; visual awe; liturgical creativity; and dynamic prayer. Yes, we’ll still use our prayer books. But for some people, it will be easier NOT to.
–Some of you are benefitting from the grant right now. If you happen to be using a large-print machzor, and feel comfortable raising your hand to let us know, please do.
–Staff and lay members of our lay committee, have attended all-day workshops at UJA-Federation, which have been eye-opening and inspiring. We even have a plaque from Federation commending us for entering into this process.
Does it mean that we’re done? No, we’re not done – we’re far from done! Some of our needs can be accomplished relatively easily; like improved signage; and placing a mezuzah at our new entrance, when we have it, at a lower angle. Other needs will cost more money – more than we have right at this moment. A hearing loop, for instance; and perhaps most obviously, this bimah. You know, bimahs like this are relatively common, particularly in metropolitan synagogues that were built in the 1920’s and ‘30’s. The operative ideology was that one would walk up into God’s presence. I guess it just wasn’t part of their consciousness that one could also roll up to God. But structural changes are difficult and costly. For now, we will try our best. In a conversation with some bar/bat mitzvah parents last week, for instance, I made it clear that if Grandma can’t walk up to the Torah for the generation–passing ritual, we’ll bring the Torah down to Grandma. We’ve done it before, and we’ll do whatever we need to–to make it easier.
Many things that may seem insignificant and invisible to most; but to people with disabilities, they are huge, and sometimes, insurmountable.
We read today on Rosh Hashanah about Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah. As it happens, I am an ardent fan of another Isaac–the great violinist Itzhak Perlman–in my book, certainly one of the greatest violinists who has ever lived, and whose sweet playing I listen to anytime I have the chance. As we all know, Itzhak Perlman grew up at a time just before the polio vaccine came into its own, and thus he has spent his entire life in braces, in a chair, or on crutches. Those of us who have attended his concerts became familiar over the years with the almost superhuman efforts he had to put out, just to get on and off the stage, and to stand up on his aluminums and bow to his adoring audiences. But now, thankfully, he has a scooter that allows him to drive on and off the stage with the greatest of ease. First time I saw it, I thought, of course! It makes perfect sense! Sometimes the answer is right in front of your nose, but it takes a while to notice it.
For Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah, in addition to the blindness of his old age, there may have been other difficulties with which he struggled during his life. We will never know. We do know he had a son named Jacob.
So I will leave you today with a story about another Jacob – the son of my Rabbi colleagues, —
I can see in my son, a beautiful soul, and a zisse neshomeh trying to express itself, and I see his sickness trying to shut him in. I see Jacob beating against the limits of his autism, struggling to emerge. I know my Jacob from the inside out, and I know that my Jacob is not his illness. But I also see people shying away from Jacob — confusing his illness for him and not seeing the beautiful boy but seeing instead a label, autism. Jacob isn’t autism and Jacob isn’t autistic. Jacob is Jacob. And he is like every other child, precious, and sweet, and beautiful if you can learn to address him in a way that he can respond to. It takes effort. It takes starting with Jacob’s illness and working toward Jacob’s soul, so that his label is a tool, not an obstruction. We live in a world of labels; we live in a world of division. We live in a world that sees only the label and dismisses the person beyond the label. We don’t take time to see the person who that label is hiding, who that label is distorting and covering. I have learned that everybody is somebody’s Jacob. And every Jacob has parents who, like me, pray that someone out there will be able to see their “Jacob” with love and with compassion. That some kind soul will look beyond the label and will care for their child with kindness and warmth. We all need to see other people as worthy of our love, not just the ones who are easy to love or to respect, but most particularly those who are not: the nudnik who won’t leave you alone, that’s somebody’s Jacob. The person at work who keeps saying those annoying things, that’s somebody’s Jacob. The fellow congregant everyone avoids after services, she is somebody’s Jacob. . . .
On this day of our New Year, we pray for wisdom and strength to embrace all the Jacobs in our midst with acceptance, and love, and respect, as children of the Living God. May all who would come here to join us in peace, always find their way in and around this House of God.