American Jews have always been known for their concern for disadvantaged people, especially those who are homeless or down and out. However, one group has by and large been ignored — disabled Jews. While most Jewish federations provide charity, they don't provide what we disabled Jews really need: access to services and an opportunity for full participation in the community. Perhaps it's time for synagogues to step in.
The Jewish community has never surveyed its disabled members to find out how many such people there are, or what concerns and needs they might have. It's not altogether clear to what extent Jewish institutions, buildings and activities are accessible to people with disabilities.
Inevitably, whenever I attend synagogue services, I quickly learn that the congregation in question has no braille prayerbook or Bible for blind worshippers. The newsletter is only available in print. However, I believe large-print prayerbooks are sometimes available for partially sighted people.
I propose that our synagogues work to survey our nation's Jews and reach out to people with disabilities. We must figure out what has to be done to make all Jewish-oriented activities fully accessible to this population, whether one is blind, deaf, mentally disabled or a wheelchair user. We need to work toward integrating disabled people into Jewish life.
Some synagogues have had several wheelchair-using members. To my knowledge, blind and visually impaired members appear to be few and far between. We need to ask ourselves questions such as: Why are most disabled Jews still on the fringes of the community? What can the community do to find them and bring them in, if they so choose? What must we do to provide greater accessibility for these people so they can join us and contribute to the community?
One idea is to provide floppy disk editions of synagogue newsletters for visually impaired people who access computers using speech, large print or braille. Another possibility is to record a weekly summary of synagogue or community events. While anyone could call and listen to the tape, it would benefit specifically those who do not read print.
We also need to consult with disabled people directly to find what services or assistance would best meet their needs. How could the Jewish community assist deaf and hearing-impaired people, as well as those who have mobility and mental impairments? Are synagogue sanctuaries wheelchair accessible, including the bimah (podium)?
Another key element in this project would involve looking at Jewish liturgy and law to find out how disabled Jews expected to be treated. The Bible and the prayerbooks contain many negative references to people with disabilities. How should we deal with these texts? How can we change our attitudes regarding people with disabilities by creating more egalitarian and sensitively worded liturgy?
In the Bible, blindness is too often equated with ignorance and physical disability with being a less-than-whole human being. The Birchot HaShachar (morning blessings), for example, speaks of "opening the eyes of the blind" and "raising up those who are bent over." We read in Bereshit (Genesis) how Isaac couldn't tell the difference between his sons because he was blind. Of course, we know that a priest with an impairment could not offer sacrifices to God.
Elsewhere in the Torah, we're told not to put obstacles in the path of the blind. But today, nobody's asking us — the disabled — what obstacles need to be removed. We need to be part of a dialogue. Also, we disabled Jews have not advocated vigorously for access and equal involvement in the Jewish community.
Obviously, we can't change the Bible. But we can change our liturgy and we can transform our attitudes. Perhaps we Jews need to do some considerable cheshbon nefesh, or soul-searching, about the way in which our ancestors, as well as modern Jews, relate to those among us who happen to have a disability. Perhaps disability-awareness sessions in our synagogues and Jewish community centers might be a good idea.
Finally, we could put out a call for people who might be interested in volunteering as readers, helpers with shopping and other errands, or American sign-language interpreters. Disabled Jews could also advertise in various synagogue and center newsletters that they wish to hire such people and pay for their services. The community could raise funds to help subsidize such assistance for those who can't afford it.
Our aim would be to work toward full equality between disabled and non-disabled Jews in the community. We could reach this goal with the help of both Jews and non-Jews, and we could also assist community organizations and agencies that deliver services to all people with disabilities. I hope our congregations will consider helping a group of Jews who, heretofore, haven't participated extensively in the community. I know the results of our efforts would be fulfilling for all of us.