The Joy Of Interactive Torah Study For All People
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The Joy Of Interactive Torah Study For All People

Rabbi Michael Levy shares a vision for how people with disabilities can be part of Torah study and Jewish worship.

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.

Bill Gaventa, Rabbi Bill
Hamilton, Sharon Shapiro, Shira Ruderman, Jay Ruderman, Rabbi Rick Jacobs,
and Avromie Adler attend the Ruderman Family Foundation's Jewish Leadership
Summit on Inclusion. Courtesy of the Ruderman Family Foundation
Bill Gaventa, Rabbi Bill Hamilton, Sharon Shapiro, Shira Ruderman, Jay Ruderman, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, and Avromie Adler attend the Ruderman Family Foundation's Jewish Leadership Summit on Inclusion. Courtesy of the Ruderman Family Foundation

This blog is written in memory of Mr. Izaak Sturm, who passed away on July 10, 2019.  His kindness, faith and strength through years of suffering endure as a guiding beacon for his family and community.

All night on June 8-9, 2019, the music of interactive Jewish study filled
synagogues, classrooms and Jewish homes in my town of Woodmere, New York. The tradition of all-night chavrutas (study groups) commemorates the Revelation of the Ten Commandments and Torah at Mount Sinai 3,331 years ago.

The Great Debate

The melody was “Shakla vetaria”–literally “give and take” or “back and
forth”–the sing-song debating dialogue that has characterized interactive
Jewish learning for millennia.  (Its style persists in Jackie Mason
monologues and in Tevya’s “Fiddler on the Roof” musings.)

The give-and-take resounded among rabbis and congregations, lecturers and audiences, and more intimate chavrutas.

The chavruta study experience isn’t orderly, like a university lecture hall
or book club. Voices crescendoed and faded away, like waves continually
ebbing and flowing. Maimonides poetically opens his commentary on the
Mishnah with the poetic expression Yam shel Talmud–the Sea Of Talmud.

We sampled a menu of intellectual stimulation:
If you make a difficult decision and then have a dream about it, should you
change your decision based on your dream?  On the other hand, perhaps dreams are inherently nonsensical.  A nuanced approach suggests reviewing your decision but not changing it solely because of the dream.

Nearly twenty reasons are given for custom to serve dairy meals on Shavuot. Each explanation deepens our understanding of Shavuot and enhances the festival.

Why (unlike any other holiday) are we obligated to maintain some celebratory aspects of Shavuot until five days after it ends?

On Shavuot night, we don’t study “Home Alone” 

“Just as one [piece] of iron sharpens another, so scholars sharpen each
other through debating” (Tractate Taanit-[fasting] 7A.)  A person learning
alone, like an isolated piece of iron, becomes dull.

In some schools, even second-graders begin the chevruta experience by
studying together before their teacher joins them.  Parents and children,
spouses, and friends can also study as chevruta partners.

Do I Hear Music or a War?

It is for good reason that our Sages coined the term milchamta shel Torah–the war of Torah; when seeking truth, we must (metaphorically) battle with all our strength.  But when the war is over, each having brought new insights and perspectives to their chavruta, a special, almost unbreakable bond is formed.

Like a stirring musical composition, (the second movement of Bernstein’s
“Chichester Psalms,” for example) the orchestra of interactive Jewish
learning may have its “battle scenes.”  Later, we realize that the
“confrontation” was a prelude to peace.

Customizing Interactive Jewish Learning for People of All Abilities

Many providers of formal and informal Jewish education assume that we who have disabilities would rather not “fight in Torah wars.”  Succumbing to the myth that disability AUTOMATICALLY equals incompetence and
unhappiness, they spoon-feed us Torah.

At the Ruderman Family Foundation‘s June 27th Jewish Leadership Summit on Inclusion, speakers described unconventional approaches tailored to the strengths and limitations of students with varying abilities.  A Bar Mitzvah boy with autism recited Kiddush for his congregation, and subsequently for his family every Friday night.  Another student mastered the delicate art of “gelilah” gently preparing the Torah to be returned to the Ark.

Yeshiva University has developed a program to accommodate some students with varying abilities.  While they will may not attain a conventional college diploma, they pursue sacred and secular studies in a campus atmosphere of enthusiastic dedication to knowledge.

Such innovative strategies can lead to cost-effective integration of those
of us with disabilities into synagogues and community centers.

My dream–Shavuot 2020

On the night of May 28-29, 2020, the music of interactive Jewish study,
including “iron on iron” percussion, will once again reverberate in Jewish
homes and synagogues.  Jews with disabilities may join chavrutas in the
“melodious battle,” in a barrier-free setting.

It’s not too early to start planning for Shavuot 2020.  With unity of
purpose and God’s blessing, ALL OF US can commemorate the “Sinai experience” as “one person with one heart.”

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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