Editor’s Note: When Paula Fox last wrote for the New Normal, her tale of learning to read Torah only to struggle to reach the reading table inspired us to create the Bima Project. The idea was that we would help an interested synagogue create a more fully accessible bima that included an adjustable table. Paula and the folks in her shul are moving rapidly toward this goal on their own and it’s thrilling to watch. They and we will keep you posted on their progress.
When I read Torah at Adath Jeshurun Congregation for the first time last May, I found it a very exciting experience, something that I wanted to continue doing – even though I could not see the congregation and they could not see me. I use a wheelchair, and the scrolls had to be held up for me because the reading table in the sanctuary was above my eye level.
I was assigned a second portion to read in August. This time, I prepared the reading myself, meeting with Todd Werner, my teacher, a couple times for fine- tuning. In May, I read part of a long parsha, or Torah portion, divided among four people. This time I read an entire short parsha on my own.
It was a very special parsha, the first portion of Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-20) which includes the famous line, “Justice, Justice you shall pursue…” What a thrill to read the admonition to judges to treat everyone fairly, not take bribes, and pursue justice as an essential basis for living.
In a sense, I am the personal beneficiary of this attitude and value system, for my congregation believes it is only just and fair that anyone among us can read from the Torah, regardless of disability. Todd always encouraged my participation and assured me that he would find a way to make it happen, never once implying that my wheelchair would be an obstacle.
The only problem was the height of the reading table.
Todd started investigating other options for the future – perhaps a different table of some sort. The Inclusion Committee, of which I am co-chair, also was interested in this issue and started considering various solutions. Recently, I met with Jeannie Gilfix, my co-chair, and Jim Sherman, our staff liaison, to discuss possible approaches.
We agreed that the current Torah reading table on the bimah should not be replaced since it had been carefully designed to be beautiful and functional, with a stand that can face in both directions and storage space underneath. Instead, we have been considering finding or building a smaller table that is attractive but affordable.
We all agreed to do some investigating. Jim Sherman, with the help of the office staff, found a drafting table that might be modified for the purpose, and the rabbi was willing to consider such an expenditure. No conclusion yet, but it’s wonderful to have support from so many people at the synagogue, including the clergy, all agreeing that this is worthwhile.
This summer, my Torah reading was in the small chapel where services are generally held when there is no Bar/Bat mitzvah. In the chapel, the Torah reading table is in the middle, and the congregation sits in a circle around it, all on the same level. This arrangement felt less awkward to me.
Again, two people held up the Torah when I read, but the Torah was partially leaning against the table, and I felt less hidden since there were people all around. So at this point, I am not as concerned about the chapel, which is used less frequently, but more concerned with finding a better reading arrangement in the main sanctuary. There is a commitment to make this happen, and I am hopeful that it will.
Paula Fox received a B.A. in psychology from Brandeis University in 1968 and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from University of Minnesota in 1972. For two years, she worked at Hennepin County Medical Center in an interdisciplinary clinic evaluating young children with complex learning and behavior problems. After recovering from a spinal cord injury in 1975, she spent over 30 years working as a school psychologist in Robbinsdale Area Schools until retiring in 2009. When Shelly Christensen established the Minneapolis Jewish Inclusion Program for People with Disabilities, Fox served on her community advisory committee. She is married to Norman Fox and has one daughter, age 30.