In the Times of Israel on April 30, Shmuley Boteach commendably criticized his rabbinical colleague Aron Moss for suggesting that a child with a mental disability has been given a special Divine blessing. If nothing else, Rabbi Boteach is contributing to a long needed conversation about how the Jewish Community deals with members who have mental and physical disabilities. For many decades that status of such individuals was just not discussed. The reasons for this silence are, I think, complex. In part they’re unintended consequences of our people’s emphasis on academic and professional achievement. The other side of boasting about the accomplishments of some children is that parents often were quiet about children who were unable to have such success. Another contributor to this silence, I suspect, has been parents’ understandable reluctance to “burden” already challenged children with a Jewish education. Didn’t children with disabilities have enough hurdles to overcome without having to assume the responsibility for preparing for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah or taking on an “extra” Jewish education?.
You can grasp the extent to which Jews with disabilities are excluded from communal organizations when you consider that its widely estimated the somewhere between 1 in 10 and 1 and 7 individuals among the general population have a serious disability. There is no reason to believe that the incidence of disability is any lower among Jews than among the rest of the population. However, I suspect that most readers do not see Jews with disabilities participating actively in synagogues and other Jewish organizations.
Fortunately, just as the general community is taking up the issue of people with “special needs” — the current “politically correct” term for persons with disabilities — Jewish communities are beginning to look at policies directed to this segment of this population. The Jewish press is filled with articles about how the needs of this segment of the Jewish population are and are not being met. Last December, for instance, New York’s Jewish Week reported that Boston’s Ruderman Foundation had sponsored a conference for funders and full-time professionals working in the Jewish disability field. At the conference, the Foundation announced that it was launching a $200,000 Ruderman Prize in Disability, “to recognize excellence and innovation in ‘unique Jewish programming’, as well as advocacy and support for Jews with special needs. Just this week the Jewish Week ran another another piece on thia subject by publishing an op-ed in which Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, the founder of a communications consulting firm who has raised a special needs child, argued for a “national strategy” which would “serve and include people with disabilities”. The Jewish Journal in Los Angeles carries a blog by Michelle Wolff, who documents her triumphs and tribulations of raising a child with a disability.
What has been missing in the embryonic Jewish conversation is the presence of Jewish individuals who actually have a disability. To some extent this is being addressed in the new Sundance Channel TV series “Push Girls” that was profiled in the Times of Israel some weeks ago. As an individual with a physical disability, I am irked by the frequent media portrayal of persons with disabilities as either helpless individuals who should be pitied or individuals who should be placed on a pedestal for living exceptionally courageous or heroic lives. Most of us just merely struggle from day to day just trying to fulfilling and productive lives.
A few weeks ago I turned 60. Like Michelle Wolff’s son Danny I’ve had cerebral palsy since birth. This slurs my speech, makes my gait awkward, and greatly impairs the use of my hands. I have also lived much of my life as an observant Jew. So I know something about what its like to function as a person with a disability being active within the Jewish Community.
On my birthday Shabbat, at which my wife and I sponsored the kiddush, the rabbi in the shul where I daven on Shabbat devoted his sermon how inspirational I supposedly am for walking to shul every week, even when sometimes this is difficult for me. And, indeed, walking has become more difficult for me as I’ve gotten older. Still, talk of me being exceptionally inspirational or heroic has always made me uncomfortable. I have known a number of people with disabilities that have adopted distinctively Jewish lifestyles. As for me, I’ve just done what I’ve seen hundreds of people do, allow their behavior to be shaped by Halacha, as much as possible. I didn’t do this for any kind of kavod or praise. I believe Halacha to be Divinely ordained, and that I have no dispensation from performing mitzvot to the best of my ability just because of my physical challenges.
I think that Rabbi Boteach is right to argue that having a disability is never a blessing. There is no natural advantage to having a disability, and there has never been a time when I didn’t wish that I didn’t have cerebral palsy. It makes everything, including living Jewishly, more difficult. Still, the greatest obstacles that people with disabilities encounter aren’t always the natural ones. People with disabilities often say that their greatest challenges come not from their disability but from the actions and attitudes of other people.Speaking personally, I sometimes have to deal with people who think that I have a mental disability.When I was of Hebrew School age, my parents couldn’t find a congregational Hebrew school that would accept me as a student. The administrators of every congregational school in my native Toronto claimed that I couldn’t handle a religious education in addition to my secular studies. (Later two universities reached different conclusions about what I could achieve academically. By admitting me, they enabled me to earn an MBA and a Masters in Political Science. And, although I didn’t accept, I was offered admission to the journalism programs at Columbia and NYU.) Fortunately. there was a small family-run Hebrew school in my native Toronto that taught me the basics of Hebrew,Torah and Prayer as well as training me for my Bar Mitzvah.
In saying that my disability is a burden, I do not to imply that there are not many way in which I have been blessed.
A few months ago, I was speaking with to a classmate from an elementary school — a “special” elementary school in which all of us had one disability or another, She too was also turning 60, and she told me that reaching the milestone had her depressed. Why? She had been thinking about all the people had gone to school with us, and she reminded me that many of them had already passed away. When I began to think about who had lived and who had died. I arrived at the estimate that between 30 and 40 percent of those elementary school classmates are already gone. This has given me a new appreciation of how blessed I am just to be alive.
I was also blessed with parents who drove me to strive and succeed. They expected me to excel educationally and professionally. My parents also expected me to be Jewishly literate. I watched my late father pray every day and Shabbat and holidays were always celebrated in our home. Dad also wanted me to have an intensive Jewish education. He didn’t consider mere preparations to chant at my Bar Mitzvah to be adequate. Every Shabbat afternoon we study the weekly Torah portion with me. Synagogue attendance, first on Shabbat and then on weekday mornings became part of my regular routine. I have always done a lot of Jewish reading and gone to many classes and lectures. In my early adulthood I started to attend a minyan — the so-called “Downstairs Minyan” at Toronto’s large Shaarei Shomayim Synagogue — where Rabbi Chaim Sacknowitz, instead of delivering a sermon every week, taught one Jewish law every Shabbat. As a university undergraduate, I took a number of courses in Jewish history and Philosophy. Today the rabbi of one of the shuls that I attend, Rabbi Mendel Silberstein, graciously gives an hour of his time to study Talmud with me every week. All of this helped me to make up for the intensive early Jewish education that I would like to have had. Still, I miss not having the opportunity to attend a Jewish Day School.
Rabbi Sacknowitz’s minyan became the center of my social life. Although it’s been 19 years since I left Toronto, I have kept many of the friendships that I developed there until today,
My university years provided another opportunity for Jewish involvement. In the early 1970′s campuses were just beginning to become hostile to Israel. I was recruited to write editorials for a pro-Israel student newspaper at the University of Toronto. That changed my life. The research and preparation that I had to do to write a weekly column strengthened my attachment to Zionism and Israel. I’ve been blessed to have visited Israel five times. At one time, I thought about making alliyah — which would have been very difficult, to say the least, given my physical limitations.
Sometimes I think about how different my relationship with Judaism would have been if I had another disability. I’m blessed to be relatively mobile and have no impairment of either my hearing or sight, Had I been unable to walk, deaf, or blind, I doubt whether I could have a meaningful synagogue experience which led to all of my future ties to the Jewish Community. In other words, with another set of disabilities, I could only have had, at best, a superficial relationship with my ancestral faith, and I would have become largely lost to my people.
Herein lies the basis of some discomfort that I have with the way that the Jewish Community approaches its policy toward people with “special needs”. All of the focus seems to be on providing Jewish educations for children with disabilities as well as making synagogues and religious services accessible to people with “special needs”. All of this is, of course, very important. But I believe that the Jewish community’s objectives should be more ambitious. While there will always be Jews with the kinds of disabilities that will make them dependent on tzedakah, Jewish communal organizations should adopt a more holistic approach. Programming to Jews with disabilities should be part of larger strategies of communal outreach which attempt to incorporate unaffiliated Jews in all aspects of Jewish life. One area in which much improvement is needed is career development. I dream of seeing a time when people with disabilities are rabbis, Jewish educators, and communal professionals. Perhaps it is advisable for the seminaries and other educational institutions which train people for these careers to make special efforts to attract suitable candidates who have disabilities.
This will probably be the last article that I write for the Times of Israel about my disability. I don’t like writing about having cerebral palsy. My disability has been and always will be part of who I am. But I try not to let to let it define me. One of the aspects of journalism that has attracted me was it allowed me to do work that would be judged solely on its merit, without being colored by my disability. I’m much more interested in readers knowing my take on the latest twist in Middle East politics or Jewish communal affairs than in sharing my musings about living with a disability.
In closing, I would like to dedicate this post to the memory of Batya Byrnes z’l’, an actve member of my shul who was physically challenged but who was known for her great acts of kindness. She passed away at a much too young age earlier this week.