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Synagogue&Community The Power of Belonging WELCOMING JEWS WITH DISABILITIES INTO JEWISH COMMUNAL LIFE By Bayla Sheva Brenner Bayla Sheva Brenner, an award-winning journalist, is senior writer in the OU
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Synagogue&Community The Power of Belonging WELCOMING JEWS WITH DISABILITIES INTO JEWISH COMMUNAL LIFE By Bayla Sheva Brenner Bayla Sheva Brenner, an award-winning journalist, is senior writer in the OU Communications and Marketing Department. Can you imagine a world devoid of people in wheelchairs and absent of the blind, deaf, developmentally disabled and hearing impaired? Easy visit most synagogues, mikvaot and Jewish community centers in North America. According to the 2000 US Census, 49.7 million people (nearly one in five) have some sort of disability. This statistic applies to the Jewish community as well. It makes one wonder where are all the Jews with disabilities? Blame it on ignorance and insensitivity, but the fact remains: Too many intellectually and physically challenged Jews live lives behind closed doors, shut away from the joys of Jewish communal life. Over the past two decades, the Jewish community has made tremendous strides in integrating people with disabilities. This is especially true of the Jewish community s educational system. Of the 700 or so yeshivot and day schools in America, you would be hardpressed to find an elementary school that does not have a resource room program, says Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman, director of OU s Yachad/National Jewish Council for Disabilities (NJCD), which is dedicated to addressing the needs of all individuals with disabilities. Yet, integrating Jews with disabilities into other areas of communal life has not been the Jewish community s focus. Disability awareness is really the newest area of social activism for the country and for the Jewish community, says Dr. Lichtman. 52 JEWISH ACTION Fall 5766/2005 If Stairs Could Speak Ironically, the most visibly disabled population, those in wheelchairs, could very well be the most overlooked. They would tell you that if stairs could speak, they would say, No! Twenty-five years ago, long before accessibility entered the American consciousness, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, in New York, built a new synagogue with a ramp for every incline. A few years later, the shul added another ramp leading to the bimah. A young man in the community became a paraplegic, relates Rabbi Avi Weiss, rav of the shul. At my son s Bar Mitzvah, I asked him to come up for an aliyah. He could not come on his own to the bimah and refused to be lifted. He said, When I come to the Torah, I will come on my own, with dignity or not at all. Rabbi Weiss had the ramp to the bimah installed with funds raised by his congregants. People will always give to a project that makes sense, he says. Dr. Shmuel M. Gedwiser of Brookline, Massachusetts, loves to dance at weddings. He maneuvers his wheelchair before the bride and groom and spins around as an expression of simchat chatan vekallah. On the back of his wheelchair hangs a sign that says it all, Ketzad merakdin lifnei hakallah Dance in front of the kallah any way you can. Photo: Dr. Irving Ehrlich Growing up, I can tell you there were no synagogues in my area that were accessible [to people with disabilities], says Chava Willig Levy, a writer, editor and lecturer who lives in Long Island, New York. At my mother s levayah [funeral] fourteen years ago, I remember being carried up in my wheelchair twenty or more steps. A year ago, my father passed away, and the levayah was held in the same shul. I expected the same situation. When I got to the front of the building, a friend informed me that the shul now had a ramp. Levy, who contracted polio at age three, credits the community for the change. Before observant Jews consider putting down roots in any community, the two musts are mikvah and minyan. However, many individuals with physical disabilities have to do without these essentials. Close to thirty years ago, shortly after a new mikvah opened in the West Rogers Park section of Chicago, a member of the kehillah became disabled. The community raised the funds to install a manually operated hydraulic lift (commonly used in rehabilitation facilities for the disabled). To ensure that the immersion is halachically valid, a chair made of (completely porous) nylon mesh is connected to the lift so as not to impede the flow of water. A bicycle accident in the mid-eighties that left a woman a paraplegic prompted the Teaneck, New Jersey, community to make its mikvah handicap accessible. I thought it According to Suri Crawford, grant writer for the OU, shuls interested in accessibility but strapped for cash can obtain funds from various foundations. For more information, call The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale is completely wheelchair accessible. The ramp leading up to the bimah the first of its kind was built almost twenty years ago. Photo courtesy of The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale was untenable that a woman who wants to observe the laws of taharat hamishpachah [family purity] wouldn t be able to do so, says Rabbi Aryeh Weil, who, at the time, was the rav of Congregation B nai Yeshurun in Teaneck. Rabbi Weil recalled an article he had read about a special lift used at a mikvah in Jerusalem. The congregants provided the necessary donations, and the renovations were completed in six months. I don t think we should be patted on the back, says Rabbi Weil. It was our obligation. In 1990, Congress passed the long-overdue Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This groundbreaking statute granted equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities, and mandated, among other things, that all government facilities and public transportation be accessible to the disabled. Unfortunately, houses of worship are exempt. Fall 5766/2005 JEWISH ACTION 53 Tips on Making Your Shul Accessible 1. The Building: Are there steps at the entrance or within the building? Is there a ramp(s) to accommodate a wheelchair? Are all doors wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair? 2. Accessible Entrance: If the main entrance is not accessible, is there an alternate entrance? Are there curb cuts close to the entrance? 3. Restrooms: Is there a stall designated to accommodate a wheelchair? Is the seat the proper height? 4. The Bimah: Is there a ramp to the bimah? 5. Provisions for the Blind and Visually Impaired: Are Braille and large-print Chumashim and siddurim set aside in a designated area? 6. Provisions for the Deaf and Hearing Impaired: Is there a sign language interpreter? 7. Special Needs Children: Do you have shadows to supervise children participating in Shabbat groups? Capacity of Seating Number of Required in an Assembly Area Wheelchair Locations 4 to to to to Over 500 6, plus 1 for each additional hundred seats In a rare move of unity, all the major religions banded together in a motion to be exempt from the ADA mandate, says Dr. Lichtman. Like so much in life, it came down to dollars and cents. One would think shuls would be the first to take on such an obligation [and become accessible], says Dr. Lichtman. I believe [not doing so] is not due to prejudice, but to ignorance. Dr. Lichtman admits that physical accessibility has not been Yachad s main concern. Our priority has been reaching the community and making inroads in changing attitudes towards accessibility in general, he says. Bringing the Yachad program to many communities has helped to knock down barriers and raise awareness. I believe that, as a result, it makes it easier to begin to talk about physical access. Despite the legal exemption from being handicap accessible, many shuls undergoing construction or renovation have opted to include accessibility in their building plans. Since the ADA has been in effect, architects have become more versed in incorporating ramps in their blueprints, says Jason Lieberman, director of government and community affairs at Yachad. Overall, it s much more cost-effective to build the ramp when designing the building than constructing [one] later. An informal OU survey found that more and more communities are answering the accessibility call. Close to seventy Orthodox synagogues throughout North America responded with a resounding Yes! to the question of whether they were wheelchair friendly, with some even providing wheelchairs and escorts to congregants who require them. Lieberman, who was born with cerebral palsy, tries to spread the message of physical accessibility while traveling to shuls across the A charismatic speaker, Chava Willig Levy, who contracted polio as a child, shares her personal story and her ideas for living life fully to corporate, college and communal audiences. Additionally, Levy offers dynamic interactive workshops on disabilities for adults and children. Photo courtesy of Chava Willig Levy country for Yachad Shabbatonim. When I speak from the pulpit about Yachad s message of inclusion, he says, I make a point of struggling up the steps to get everyone watching to think, Why don t we have a ramp? I seriously doubt that any shul board member would say he doesn t want someone s grandmother in a wheelchair to see her grandson s Bar Mitzvah. That s what this is about; accessibility means accessible to everyone. One Good Sign Leads to Another For many years, the Jewish deaf had no choice but to live as a separate segment of the community, cut off from religious communal life. Fifteen or twenty years ago there were few, if any, accommodations for the deaf in shuls, says Shalom Lependorf, the principal of a boys school in Brooklyn and a counselor for the deaf. In regard to communal 54 JEWISH ACTION Fall 5766/2005 awareness and services for the deaf, the non-jewish community was way ahead of the Jewish community. Back then, Rabbi Dovid Goldwasser, noted lecturer and rav of Khal Bais Yitzchok in Brooklyn, was one of the few American rabbis to arrange to have an interpreter at his Wednesday evening classes. Lependorf, who at the time was coordinating Brooklyn s Edward R. Murrow s program for the deaf (the largest public high school program of its kind), wanted to get involved with the Jewish deaf. He began inviting members of the deaf community to sukkah parties, Shabbatonim and to shul, where he davened alongside them and interpreted the rabbi s speeches. Initially, people in the congregation told me to stop moving my hands, says Lependorf. Apparently, they weren t familiar with sign language. [Community interest] began to grow as people became accustomed to signing. Various individuals even expressed an interest in learning to sign. Lependorf began conducting Torah classes for the deaf and got involved with Beth Torah for the Deaf, a Brooklyn-based club that sponsors Shabbatonim, holiday celebrations and monthly shiurim for the Orthodox deaf community. At one point, Lependorf brought one of his Jewish deaf students from public school to the popular motzei Shabbat shiur given by Rabbi Yisroel Reisman, rav of Agudath Israel Zichron Chaim Tzvi in Brooklyn, which regularly attracts nearly 2,000 participants. We sat all the way in the back, says Lependorf. And I signed the shiur. After several weeks, Rabbi Reisman noticed them and insisted they sit up front. Word got out and more deaf men and women joined the curious contingent up front. I find the classes extremely interesting, says Shimon Steinhaus. Most of us would love to have an interpreter available for shul, lectures and events. The Jewish deaf communities of Baltimore, Chicago and Toronto have requested a live video feed of the motzei Shabbat shiurim, and presently Rabbi Reisman arranges to have an interpreter at all of his lectures. After years of interpreting and teaching the deaf, Lependorf says he s beginning to notice a welcomed shift. It went from a virtual midbar [desert], due to total ignorance and lack of community involvement, to people actively expressing an interest in providing services for the deaf. I attribute this turnaround to the fact that the community is getting used to seeing interpreters and deaf people around. This past year, at the Siyum HaShas, a section was reserved for deaf participants and their interpreters for the first time. I stood at the opening of the mechitzah so that both the men and women could see me, says Lependorf. When Rabbi Yissocher I make a point of struggling up the steps to get everyone watching to think, Why don t we have a ramp? Frand and Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon spoke, you couldn t find a dry eye among the hearing impaired. Lependorf currently devotes a growing portion of his time to counseling those in the deaf community. Whatever problems are out there in the community at large are also in the deaf community, and they need to be dealt with. Lependorf says he feels blessed to have forged valued friendships with many deaf Jewish individuals over the years. The active concern of one congregant toward another is at the very heart of the accessibility movement. When Hillel Rosenfeld, a psychologist from Oak Park, Michigan, learned American Sign Language at the request of the clinic where he worked, he had no idea how far-reaching this skill would be. That is, not until he met Rabbi David Rabinowitz, a deaf man in his community. (The first deaf person to get semichah, Rabbi Rabinowitz is also North America s first deaf rabbi.) Dr. Rosenfeld happily took on the job of interpreting the prayer services for Rabbi Rabinowitz at Bais Knesses HaGra, the local shul. The congregants were very supportive of my signing the services, says Dr. Rosenfeld. Since Mrs. Rabinowitz [who is also deaf] is proficient in lip reading, my wife, Susie, would mouth a translation of the rabbi s divrei Torah and point to where we were in the Torah reading, says Dr. Rosenfeld. The Rosenfeld family recently made aliyah. One of the hardest things about making aliyah was leaving behind the Rabinowitzes, says Dr. Rosenfeld, who still misses his friends. Our serving as their link to the speaking world was a wonderful merit for Susie and me. We are grateful for having had that opportunity. Fall 5766/2005 JEWISH ACTION 55 One of the most effective ways of connecting deaf Jews to the synagogue community is through a Shabbaton, an event that brings together deaf and hearing Jews for a warm Shabbat experience. Since there are so few social and religious opportunities for deaf Jews, these events tend to attract deaf individuals from surrounding states, says Rabbi Eliezer Lederfeind, director of Our Way, the OU s program for the deaf and hearing impaired and the only program that hosts Shabbatonim for the Jewish deaf. Our Way is a division of NJCD. Our Way Shabbatonim are held several times a year at OU synagogues in various communities throughout the United States. In shul, we usually interpret the tefillah and the rabbi s speech. Most of the hearing Jews in the shul are amazed [to see] the signing, says Rabbi Lederfeind. They are astonished to find that so many deaf Jews are neighbors of theirs whom they have never met before. Established in 1969, Our Way continues to provide the Jewish deaf and hard of hearing with resources and programming that puts them in touch with each other and with Jewish experiences formerly closed to this most isolated population. Through sign language publications, programs providing interpretation of synagogue services, interpreted classes, its Megillat Esther PowerPoint Presentation for Purim (used in numerous shuls across the country) and the Jewish Deaf Singles Registry matchmaking service, among other programs, Our Way continues to advance the quality of life for Jews who are deaf and hard of hearing. As the network of the Jewish deaf community grows, so does the concern for one another. Rabbi Lederfeind became acquainted with the Antar family, a deaf couple living in Alabama, while he was manning an Our Way booth at a convention for the deaf in Washington, DC. A horrific tragedy brought them closer. In November 2002, terrorists committed a vicious car bomb attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, killing three Israelis and wounding eighty others. Among the victims were the Antars nephews, Noy and Dvir, aged twelve and thirteen, of Ariel. Rabbi Lederfeind contacted the Antars to console them, and suggested a powerful way to pay tribute to their nephews: holding a Shabbaton linking the deaf and hearing communities, in memory of the boys. The Antars loved the idea and decided to host the Shabbaton in a sizable Jewish community; they chose Atlanta. Rabbi Chaim Neiditch, director of NCSY s (National Conference of Synagogue Youth) Southern Region, assisted with the necessary arrangements and brought twenty NCSYers eager to join Congregation Beth Jacob in welcoming the thirty deaf participants. It was a great success, says Rabbi Lederfeind. The Antars spoke very movingly about their nephews. I told them, They brought the message of Shabbat to the deaf community in Atlanta. The Jewish deaf in Atlanta continue to maintain a connection to Congregation Beth Jacob and to the broader local Jewish community. Rabbi Neiditch has organized more Our Way programs at the shul. The shul has become the home for Atlanta s Jewish deaf community, says Rabbi Lederfeind. The local Purim parade even featured a presentation made by the deaf kehillah. Plans for another Shabbaton are in the works. Who Gives Sight to the Blind A poignant teshuvah (responsum) of Rav Moshe Feinstein involves a blind man who needed a guide dog to accompany him to shul. Since a dog is not permitted in a synagogue, some posekim rule that a blind person is exempt from praying in shul. In his teshuvah, Rav Moshe expresses the concern that if an individual can t bring a Leah and Louis Caplan, both of whom are deaf, met through the Jewish Deaf Singles Registry (JDSR). An international matchmaking service, JDSR, which is sponsored by Our Way, aims at pairing deaf Jewish singles of all ages, denominations and communication modalities. Sixty percent of the Jewish deaf population intermarry, out of desperation rather than indifference. The JDSR works to stem the tide of Jewish deaf assimilation. seeing-eye dog to shul, he won t ever be able to participate in tefillah betzibbur or hear keriyat hatorah, and would feel completely isolated from the community. To preserve the person s identity as a member of Klal Yisrael, Rav Moshe ruled that the man be allowed to attend shul with his guide dog. When social worker Chaim Biberfeld of Brooklyn introduced his guide dog, Vike, to the members of his minyan, a few of them warily kept their distance. They ve since gotten used to him, says Biberfeld. Born with retinitis pigmentosa, the most common cause of blindness, Biberfeld did not realize he had a problem until he reached his teenage years. I saw 20/20, he explains, but I lacked peripheral vision. It wasn t until I bumped into enough people that I realized I d better go see an eye doctor. As the years progressed, his eyesight continued to deteriorate. He eventually took a course in mobility training and got a cane and a seeing-eye dog. Starting out with a physical disability and becoming disabled later in life are very different experiences, says Biberfeld. I had to go through a series of stages denial, anger, bargaining with God and, finally, acceptance. I 56 JEWISH ACTION Fall 5766/2005 Hebrew Texts in Braille and Large-Print The Jewish Heritage for the blind, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit organization, provides (free) Hebrew texts in Braille and large-print including siddurim, machzorim, Haggadot, Megillot and children s stories. Many of the requests received by the organization come from visually impaired individuals living in Israel. For more information, call JEWISH ACTION Fall 5766/2005 had to accept the hard fact that certain things are beyond me. I realized I had to continue to be productive with what was possible. Biberfeld knows most of the tefillot by heart, except those recited on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and certain other yamim tovim. On those holidays, he arranges for someone to daven next to him and whisper the tefillot so he can repeat them. I asked Rav Dovid Feinstein [the son of Rav Mosh
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