Amazing! Breathtaking! Creative!

I could go through the entire alphabet to describe the activities and initiatives of February 2018–Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. We’re justifiably proud of our accomplishments.

It’s time to move to the next stage of Jewish disability awareness—recognition of each Jew with a disability as a unique individual.

Guidance from Hillel

Rabbi Hillel advises “Do not judge (assess) your fellow human being until you have arrived at his place.” Underlying his statement is a question: Can I really be fully “aware” of what life is like for another human being?

Each of Hillel’s phrases suggests a path towards an answer—-applicable to human beings in general and Jews with disabilities in particular. awareness.

“Do Not Judge”

What’s your first impression after a presentation about disability? It might be “Okay, now I know what it’s like to be disabled.” You might overlook the reality that “the Jewish disability experience” is different for each of us, and may change from year to year for the same person.

“Your fellow human being.”

We’re not very different from non-disabled Jews. We aspire to worship, study, make a living, raise a family and contribute to our community just as you do. What makes us “different” is not our disabilities, but the stereotypical beliefs that others have about us. In addition, we face transportation, communication and architectural barriers to full Jewish living.

“Until you have arrived in his place”

Arriving at another person’s place means understanding him or her as an individual. When people get to know me at the synagogue or at celebrations, they realize that disability is not my central and defining feature. Like all individuals, my behavior and beliefs define me.   I have my own views about the interplay of Jewish and secular values, requesting and accepting help, balancing work and family obligations and balancing America’s (and my own) budget.

Keep in mind that when a parent, sibling or service provider discusses disability, you have arrived at the “place” of the parent, sibling or service provider. If you get to know me through “one-on-one” ongoing everyday encounters, you might discover that I actually disagree with the parent, sibling or service provider.

It sometimes seems that society prefers to “experience disability” from a “safe distance.” There are many “disability movies” including “Rain Man,” “My Left Foot,” “Scent of a Woman,” “The Shape of Water”—to name a few. Disability is almost always the central and defining characteristic of the disabled protagonist.

My wife has commented that we admire the non-disabled who play the part of a disabled character, often nominating them for Oscars. They immerse us in “the disability experience” during the movie. When the film ends, we can return to the safety of “reality.” (What would it be like to come home from “The Shape of Water” and meet, for the first time, your son’s nonverbal girlfriend?)

Our capacity to understand and empathize is a Divine gift. May God grant us the wisdom to use it to travel towards the “place” of other human beings–—not one month each year, but every day for a lifetime.

(Part II, after a break for Passover, will discuss specific activities to help you get to know Jews with disabilities as unique individuals.)

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.