Disability: A Force For Unity Within And Beyond The Jewish Community
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Disability: A Force For Unity Within And Beyond The Jewish Community

Rabbi Michael Levy shares about the impact of a recent conference that brought together health professionals, scientists, clergy, philosophers and disability advocates.

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.

Rabbi Michael Levy
Rabbi Michael Levy

The talented Israeli group Shalva  inspires thousands of spectators and
viewers.  It demonstrates to online and live audiences that that with
adequate support, self-directing people with disabilities can express their
artistic talents to the fullest.

I am inspired by the group’s unity.

Originally, the group’s various disabilities brought them together.  Despite
their religious and cultural differences, they developed not only their
musical talents, but also strong loyalty and commitment to each other.

They bonded despite their differences.  They inspire us to work together
despite our differences.

Disability Unity

On February 17-18, 2019, I was privileged to participate in Arizona State
University’s Judaism, Science and Medicine Group’s eleventh annual
conference.  Health professionals, scientists, clergy, philosophers,
disability advocates and others discussed Judaism and Disability: The New Genetics, Disability Studies And Practical Interventions.

Professor Hava Tirosh-Samuelson presents at the conference. Courtesy of Rabbi Michael Levy

Together, we explored 3,300 years of Jewish texts, persistent myths and
stereotypes about disability, medical, technological and genetic
breakthroughs and the changing roles of health professionals, clergy,
community leaders and disability advocates.

The conference was not designed to reach a consensus regarding disability
issues.  Rather, we built bridges of understanding by sharing each others’
viewpoints and areas of expertise.

We grappled with the rabbinic injunction to recite a blessing when seeing
unusual people or animals:  “Blessed are you, Lord…who has created
different-looking creatures.”  Does this bracha show respect for disability
or discomfort about it?

Like many before us, we probed Torah passages about the Kohanim (priests) with disabilities.  Some participants felt that these Kohanim were relegated to a lesser role in bringing sacrificial offerings in the ancient Temple; others were not troubled by the text.  We explored whether and/or how these texts relate to theology, today’s worship services and to persistent and pervasive myths about disability.

Individual anecdotes and case studies strengthened our networking.  I began to understand the dilemma of a geneticist when s/he discovers that a child is likely to develop a chronic health condition later in life.  How can
Jewish values guide us regarding if and when to inform the parents and the
child?

A parent described her son’s devastating conversation with an adult.  The
teenager and the adult chatted amiably until the teenager mentioned that he was on the autism spectrum.  Then, the adult suddenly began addressing him slowly and loudly as if he lacked intelligence.

A psychologist described his bold steps to “unlock the heart” of an
individual with an emotional disability subjected to harmful labeling. We
struggled with the reality that diagnoses are necessary but can tend to
define disability as a person’s central and most prominent characteristic.

Disability Conquers Disunity

Etgarim (challenges) is a recreational and athletic program for Israeli
children, adults and adolescents (including and Palestinians) with a variety
of disabilities. An Etgarim founder described how he helped the family of
a wheelchair user overcome its apprehensions and support her development to become an Israeli Army officer.

For me, the open-minded conference ended too soon.  WE had shared the dream of the day when “disability integration” would be routine.

Soon we would confront airport personnel who might say of “I have a
wheelchair here” or “He’s blind; he needs somebody to stay with him at all
times.”  No single disability group can eliminate such language and the
stereotypes that perpetuate it.  No organization can single-handedly
strengthen the voices of Jews with disabilities and empower them to make
meaningful choices about their lives and ambitions.

Rabbi Moshe Weinberger reminds us that we are completing the thirteenth
month of the Jewish year, which belonged to none of the ancient twelve
tribes alone, but to all of them.  In a mystical sense, it is a favorable
time to follow their example and encourage togetherness wherever possible.

Together, with God’s help, let us liberate Jews with disabilities from
barriers, echoing the ancient Passover liberation from Egyptian slavery.

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.
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