All Are Welcome At The Seder
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All Are Welcome At The Seder

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.

In your mind’s eye, look around at those with whom you have celebrated past Seders.

A contemplative girl is full of questions: How could a respected family in Egypt so quickly become an enslaved nation? Why was Pharaoh so stubborn?

There’s the "Squirmer." If he doesn’t declare outright that he’d rather not be at the Seder, his body language clearly broadcasts the message.

Seated next to each other are two frustrated guests. One is always losing his place in the Haggadah, and the other’s eyes often stray to the kitchen.

During its recounting of the Exodus from Egypt, the Haggadah “pauses” to consider Seder participants resembling those described above. They are portrayed as four sons: one wise, one wicked, one simple and one who doesn’t know how to ask.

How should a Seder leader treat these participants? What if they have disabilities?

The Wise Child

Thirsting for knowledge, this wise child can’t stop asking questions. Perhaps she’s been preparing questions for weeks.

Print-disabled individuals also thirst for knowledge. So do those who are nonverbal, and those who can’t climb two flights of stairs to join a Seder celebration. If we haven’t accommodated them this year, we should, when we plan our 2016 Seder.

The Wicked Child

At a Seder when I was 18 years old, my older cousin concluded that I was an “angry young man.” Rebellion strains the parent-child relationship, but it’s a very “old normal.”

With so much medical attention focused on some adolescents with disabilities, we must recognize rebellion for what it is, and not reflexively diagnose it as a disability-related behavior disorder.

The Haggadah rather harshly rebukes the rebellious participant. Nowadays, a rebuke should be “customized” to the recipient so that it may benefit him, whether or not he’s disabled.

The Simple Son

The simple son isn’t a simpleton. He’s straightforward. He doesn’t put on an act. If he loses the thread of the Haggadah’s discussion, he reaches out for assistance.

Unfortunately, many in our communities automatically treat people with physical or sensory disabilities as “low-functioning." This ignores our capabilities and puts a negative spin on “simple.” Such prejudices have no place at the Seder table, or in any congregational or community activity.

The Son Who Doesn’t Know How to Ask

Perhaps this son has never been allowed to experience the curiosity, contradictions, mistakes and uncertainty that engender questions. Everything is arranged for him. There’s nothing about which to inquire.

Well-meaning parents and educators sometimes conclude “Disabled children and adults struggle through life. Let’s make things easier and arrange all their activities.”

The Haggadah instructs: “You open (a discussion) with him.” Stir him up. Who knows? His newly awakened curiosity could gradually transform him into the wise child, overflowing with questions.

All Are Welcome at the Seder

We welcome “sons” of any age and character to the retelling of the Exodus from Egypt at the Seder. They too share in our dream: to rid the world of slavery, and to liberate ourselves from any inner Egypt that may enslave us as individuals.

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, 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.

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