Fourteen years ago I accompanied Stephanie to meet with the rabbi of one of the synagogues in my hometown of Minneapolis. It was a unique experience for Stephanie, who lives with cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. It was the first time she had been in a synagogue since moving to the Twin Cities fifteen years earlier.
Stephanie chose to meet with Rabbi Norman Cohen because the congregation, Bet Shalom, was building a new Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)–compliant synagogue. The sanctuary, placed in the very center of the building, was completely accessible, and access to the bimah was achieved by a low-rising ramp on either side of it. Everyone ascended the same way.
Sitting with Rabbi Cohen and Stephanie so long ago, I learned that since moving to Minneapolis fifteen years earlier, Stephanie repeatedly tried to find a synagogue that would welcome her. She encountered numerous gatekeepers during those years.
A gatekeeper is a person who makes decisions about who gets to participate and who does not. Gatekeepers have the kind of power to make hurtful decisions that result in shutting people out, thus marginalizing or patronizing them. In such cases, people with disabilities are denied both access and support to live a Jewish life.
Gatekeepers blocked Stephanie at every turn. No one ever returned her phone messages when she called for information. When she did talk with an actual person, he or she would tell Stephanie, “We don’t have anyone here with a disability” or “We don’t have any way for you to get into the building.”
No one had ever responded with an invitation to talk or to meet someplace accessible to work with Stephanie to help her be a part of the community, until the day we met with Rabbi Cohen.
During the meeting, the rabbi asked Stephanie, “Are your parents alive?”
“No,” she paused for a moment. “They have been gone a long time. I have never once said the Mourner’s Kaddish for them in a synagogue.” Stephanie began to cry.
Not being able to say Kaddish for her parents! I recalled my own experience of going to shul and reciting Kaddish for my father for eleven months, for Yahrzeits and at Yizkor services. I took for granted that I could perform this mitzvah. And here was someone, a daughter like me, who just wanted to say Kaddish for her parents with other Jews in a synagogue.
I wondered how many other Jews who live with disabilities, and their family members, were intentionally or unintentionally affected by such gatekeepers.
This month, the eighth year of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), let our thoughts turn to supporting people with disabilities to have access to all of the richness of Jewish life. Instead of saying “no,” let’s commit to saying, “This is where we all belong.”
With that change alone, we may enter into a partnership with God that acknowledges that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim—in God’s image—and therefore should all be included in Jewish life. The beauty is in discovering, together, how to make rituals and mitzvot a part of the lives of people with disabilities.
Shelly Christensen, MA FAAIDD, is co-founder of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. Shelly literally wrote the book on inclusion, the Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities. She is on the faculty of the Union for Reform Judaism, the Jewish Leadership Institute on Disabilities and Inclusion, and is on the Ruderman Chabad Inclusion Initiative core team. Shelly consults with numerous Jewish and other faith communities. She and her husband have three sons, one of whom lives with Asperger syndrome, two grandsons, and a deaf Sheltie named Penina.