Editor's Note: When Paula Fox first 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 moved rapidly toward this goal on their own and we are now thrilled to share their creative solution.
I learned to read Torah a year ago and now have read three times at Adath Jesurun Congregation in Minnetonka, Minnesota. As a wheelchair user, I was sitting too low to see the Torah on the regular Torah reading table.
The first two times I read Torah, as I described in my previous blogs, the Torah was held by two people so that I could see it to read. However, I could not see the congregation and they could not see me, and I worried about the Torah being dropped. The Inclusion Committee and others in the congregation shared my concern about finding a better arrangement for reading from a wheelchair.
Jeannie Gilfix and I, co-chairs of the Inclusion Committee, met with Jim Sherman, staff liaison for the committee, to consider better options, such as some kind of small adjustable table. We researched various possibilities, including expensive sanctuary furniture. Jim Sherman, a man of action, found an appropriate table on sale in an art store for just $50. The table was simple, with metal legs and a slanting wooden top that could adjust several inches up or down. Originally white, the table was painted brown by the synagogue custodians to better match the furniture in the sanctuary. Although it was not fancy, the table was practical and functional. It could be moved next to the main Torah reading table when needed and then moved out of the way afterwards.
The grand debut for our new adjustable Torah reading table was on February 22, 2014, our congregation’s Jewish Disablity Awareness Month Shabbat. Rabbi Harold Kravitz gave a full explanation of our efforts to get the new table, followed by the S’checheyanu prayer – a fitting inauguration of this new accommodation. I read the first parshah of Vayakhel. This time when I read, I could wheel up to the Torah and comfortably see the scroll. I could glance up to see the congregation although I was generally too absorbed in reading to look up much. Nonetheless, the eye contact and visual connection with the congregation was exhilarating. When I was done reading, the table was moved out of the way, back by the side window.
To me, this was a perfect example of acceptance and inclusion. A problem was identified, and the problem was solved. The adjustable table was simple and inexpensive. It could be used in other places, such as the chapel, and by other people in wheelchairs or anyone who couldn’t reach the main table. I find it gratifying to be part of a congregation that not only welcomes but encourages my participation, without letting artificial barriers get in the way.
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.