Kol Hanshama: Every Soul Reaches towards God in Its Own Way

Monday, June 25, 2012

Experts in advocacy and service to people with disabilities engaged rabbinical, cantorial, education, and Doctor of Ministry students as well as alumni during a unique day of learning at the New York School devoted to exploring the responsibility and role of Jewish leaders and institutions in creating communities of inclusion and welcome.  The Yom Iyyun on February 28 was organized by HUC-JIR in partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism, and included leaders from a broad range organizations and agencies offering assistance to disabled individuals.  The event marked the 4th annual Jewish Disability Month of February.

“Based on the success of last year’s Yom Iyyun on Special Needs for the MARE program at the New York School of Education (NYSOE), it was clear that this subject needed at be brought to the entire student and alumni community,” explained Professor Jo Kay, NYSOE Director. Her  planning committee included rabbinical student Joshua Beraha, cantorial student Faryn Kates and education student Amanda Farb, and leaders in the field – Rabbi Edythe Mencher, the URJ’s Specialist on Caring Communities and Family Concerns, Dori Frumin Kirschner, the Executive Director of MATAN (dedicated to ensuring that all Jewish children have a rich and meaningful education), Lisa Friedman, Co-Chair of the URJ’s Committee on Access to Jewish Education, and Rabbi Nancy Wiener, Director of the Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling at HUC-JIR/New York. “The result was a magical “day of learning,” which has inspired us to continue to build our own commitment to ongoing study and advocacy in addressing the needs of people with Special Needs.”

The program began with video clips from movies and documentaries that involved people with disabilities, including Praying with Lior, and quotations from contributors to the URJ blog on disabilities.  The community then participated in a unique worship service, led by Rabbis Robert Levine, Leora Kaye, and Ben Spratt, demonstrating how meaningful and accessible tefillah can be created for congregants with special needs.  Rabbi Levine spoke during the service about Congregation Rodeph Sholom’s special efforts to overcome the isolation from Jewish life experienced by many families affected by disabilities, and the synagogue’s growing success in involving disabled congregants and their families in worship, learning, and communal celebration.

A series of inspiring first-person narratives were presented by individuals living with disabilities who are now leading the Jewish community’s effort to advance inclusivity and equality.  This panel featured Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, Senior Advisor on Disabilities for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) and the Task Force on Access to Lifelong Jewish learning; Alexis Kashar, Director of the Jewish Deaf Resource Center; and Neil Jacobson, Founder of Abilicorp, an employment agency for people with disabilities. 

Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, former Associate Director of the RAC, recounted her arduous rehabilitation from a traumatic brain injury and described the impact of the 1990 American Disabilities Act (ADA) in abolishing public barriers and mandating educational assistance for children and adults, but cautioned that the ADA did not abolish discrimination.  “Discrimination leads to poverty and unemployment for the 20% of Americans with disabilities,” she noted. She urged those in attendance to create inclusive programs and publicize their inclusivity in all print and website promotional materials, provide Jewish education opportunities for disabled learners for all ages, remove physical barriers, engage the disabled in leadership, and provide equal access as well as change attitudes.  “Equal rights for the disabled are not a social action item,” she argued, “but a matter of synagogue administration throughout the institution.”  She alerted the audience that the special education law is up for re-authorization in Congress, and that the impact of disabilities factored into employment, Medicaid, and long-term health care law too.  She concluded that universal design helps everyone, and urged congregations to engage the guidance and participation of disabled volunteers, saying “Nothing about us without us!”

Born deaf to deaf parents, Alexis Kashar described her upbringing with a hearing sister.  Fortunate to have become proficient in American Sign Language (ASL) very early on, she and her family were nonetheless excluded from Jewish life.  Today she is a civil rights attorney who was on the frontier of litigating access cases when the ADA passed in 1990.  She pointed to the loss to the organized Jewish community represented by each individual disabled person.  “When I found inclusivity in my Jewish community, I brought 14 members of my family along with me to synagogue, who otherwise would be unaffiliated with Jewish life,” she explained. She applauded last May’s Conservative rabbinical response that affirmed the equality of the deaf as an important milestone in inclusivity in Jewish religious life.  “We now have choices and want to live in the Jewish world, and being on par with everyone else, we must work together to change the wider Jewish world’s understanding of who we are,” she said.  “The deaf and hard of hearing have different needs, but access is the community’s responsibility and should not be shouldered by a few.”  To that end, she announced that this May 5 Shabbat 2012 will be dedicated to the deaf and hard of hearing – Jews being among the 36 million Americans and their families and friends affected by this disability – and hoped that the “Jewish community can serve as a role model to others.”  

Neil Jacobson summed up his call to action with the words: “All of us need to be needed.”  The son of two Holocaust survivors of the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz, he was born with cerebral palsy – a condition which would have meant his death during the Nazi era.  Praising his parents for “teaching me to be strong and independent,” he described going to Hebrew school classes up two flights of stairs in the inaccessible synagogue building and not having a wheel chair until high school.  His adopted son, now 25 years old, taught him what it was to be needed – “when he cried for his bottle at night, he did not care that I was disabled, but expected me to help him.” Four years ago, he retired as Senior Vice President at Wells Fargo and lauded that company’s care for him as their IT systems expert – even sending an armored van that could accommodate his 300 lb. wheelchair to pick him up in the middle of the night to solve a major problem.  He is busy building his new company, Abilicore, which seeks to help the 75% of disabled workers who are unemployed by placing them in call centers and other work environments, while also serving on the Board of his Reform synagogue.  “Every congregant needs to feel needed,” he noted.

The Q & A session yielded practical suggestions about the availability of grants to provide the resources for accessibility – and the wonderful role that UJA-Federation of New York is playing in this effort.  The discussion of needs included the cost effectiveness of multiple congregations working together to share ASL interpreters, the need for good lighting for signed programs and giving advance access to prayers to the interpreters to prepare them with the meaning and rhythm of the service, creating alternative, “quiet” spaces adjacent to sanctuaries, providing seating during oneg receptions to equalize those in wheelchairs and those able to stand, and providing aides for those with physical disabilities.

Rabbi Nancy Wiener, Steinberg Distinguished Professor in Human Relations and Counseling and Director of the Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling at HUC-JIR/New York, discussed the needs of those with visual impairments, and the necessity for large type prayer books and large font projections of text, as well as the availability of Braille prayerbooks from the Jewish Braille Institute.  She noted that the aging of the Jewish community – with issues relating to balance, hearing, and sight -- meant that congregations need to accommodate those who may not want to acknowledge their changing needs.

Rabbi Edythe Mencher stressed the importance of communication among synagogues to improve their services to those disabled.  She pointed to the extensive resources to be found on the URJ website at rj.org/life/community/disabilities as well as the exceptional blog posts related to disabilities at RJ.org (keyword disabilities), saying “Each person and family counts, needs help, and will be helped.”

Denise Jacobson spoke up from her wheelchair at the conclusion of the session, saying, “It is important not to assume, but to learn how to ask us what we need.”

Images (from left to right):
Top: Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, Alexis Kashar, and Neil Jacobson
Middle: Rabbi Ben Spratt, HUC-JIR rabbinical student Josh Beraha, Rabbi Leora Kaye, and Rabbi Robert Levine
Bottom: HUC-JIR education student Amanda Farb, Dori Frumin Kirschner, Rabbi Edythe Mencher, Rabbi Nancy Wiener, Professor Jo Kay, Lisa Friedman, and Josh Beraha


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's first institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu