Sunday, February 21, 2016

Inclusion: Leaving Our Comfort Zone

 My wife,  Denise Sherer Jacobson , had this blog published in the Union of Reform Judaism (URJ) website.
Inclusion: Leaving Our Comfort Zone

I remember the day I first entered the Temple Sinai sanctuary. At once impressed by it's amphitheater-like magnificence, complete with dome ceiling and stained-glass windows, I was, at the same time, totally overwhelmed by the sizable throng of adults along with their noisy, rambunctious children attempting to settle in the pews waiting for Religious School orientation to begin. With my seven-year-old son David beside me, I maneuvered my power wheelchair through the human 'sea of reeds' and found an empty spot on the aisle where David could sit and I could park alongside him, leaving enough room so that I wouldn't block the slanted pathway. While parents chattered with other parents, and children with other children, no one seemed to pay my son and me any mind. Although I must have engaged David in some kind of chit-chat (as the conscientious good mother I always tried to be), I felt my skepticism growing. Was this really a good idea? Why did I think it was so important to give David a Jewish education and be part of a Jewish community when I never had that sense of belonging? In that moment, in that beautiful sanctuary, I was way out of my comfort zone!
Having grown up with cerebral palsy, I had the life-long experienced of being seen as “the other” by a nondisabled society. My disability was obvious—my arms and legs affected by incoordination, my speech, slow and labored. Most people assumed I also had a cognitive impairment. Only when they got to know me did they realize I was pretty self-reliant, easy to understand (if the room was quiet and they exerted some patience), and I had a wicked sense of humor and could easily slaughter them in a game of Scrabble, to their chagrin! By the time I was in my thirties, I had become a successful disability advocate, writer, peer counselor, and teacher. I had given disability-related trainings and lectures throughout the country and the world to college and medical students, educators, social service professional.
But I stayed away from Judaism, the religion and culture of my birth. The few times I ventured into a synagogue, I felt unwelcome. People stared or looked aside. I never saw a warm smile or a friendly face. I came away feeling disappointed and rejected.
I could make sense of the aloof reaction from society in general, but I expected more from the Jewish community. Jews, of all people, knew first hand about oppression and prejudice. Almost every Jewish holiday I celebrated as a child, Pesach, Chanukah, Purim, reminded us how we struggled for our freedom and right to exist. Although the men in my family were mostly High Holiday Jews and their sons became B'nei Mitzvahs, Judaism was central to my family's tradition. I remember hearing nightmarish stories about the horrors of The Holocaust from my American-born relatives, and my mother would talk about the restrictions Jews faced—barred from joining social clubs, the unfair quotas limiting Jews entrance into medical schools. We were a people who championed the Civil Rights Movement. I had thought that because of our Jewish legacy, welcoming me as a Jew with a disability would be a no-brainer, but that was far from my experience. So, if the Jews didn't need me, I certainly didn't need them!
And then I became a parent, a Jewish mother, if you will. With my husband's family, as well as my own, living 3,000 miles away, I wanted David to learn the richness of his Jewish heritage, which led us to the Temple Sinai sanctuary that morning.
Twenty-two years later, David has long since graduated from religious school and Midrasha, yet I'm entrenched in my Temple Sinai community. It's where I've learned and studied Jewish texts and values, had my Bat Mitzvah, served on committees, chanted Torah, and formed friendships. I've also educated our congregation about disability and access, sometimes getting into heated debates about the importance of having integrated seating in the sanctuary (so those of us in wheelchairs don't stick out in the aisle like a sore thumb and can sit with people we know) and the need for Braille prayer books, among other things.
I've also learned that not everyone in the congregation has to accept me or be comfortable around me, just as I won't feel warm and fuzzy toward all of them. But by allowing ourselves to experience individuals who our different from us, we are challenging ourselves to be better human beings. Had I given in to my temptation to return to my comfort zone that morning twenty-two years ago, I would never be writing this article.
Judaism, as a religion, teaches us the values of rachamim, chesed, tzedek, Tikkun Olam (compassion, kindness, justice, bettering the world). It encourages us to venture outside our comfort zones. Inclusion give us a chance to practice what we are taught, to go out of our comfort zones, but within the safety of our very own backyard.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Strive for Ideals – Torah Reflections – Feb. 2016

I presented this at Temple Sinai on Saturday February 13th 2016.


Let them make me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them” comes from this week's Torah portion. It is also inscribed on the front of the ramp on Webster Street. The Torah portion goes into great detail as to how the tabernacle should be built. Indeed, one can wonder, how can anything be built so grandiose and beautiful so that God could and would want to live in it? If God is one and we are all part of God, what does it mean to build a sanctuary for all of us?

Clearly, Temple Sinai is beautiful! When we planned the new building, a great deal of thought went into trying to make it accessible to all people. The preschool area was designed for small children. The quiet room in the chapel was designed for children unable to sit through an entire service. There are no steps or pews in the chapel that prevent those of us who use wheelchairs from sitting wherever we like. We have prayer books in braille and we have hearing devices for people who are hard of hearing. We will soon have an adjustable height lectern in the Chapel that will enable some people to more easily lead services and chant from the Torah. Yet undoubtedly there are people who are not comfortable being in our community. I imagine people with intellectual disabilities may be very alienated attending services here. I know that people with environmental illnesses (EI) and Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) have difficulty being here especially when people come here wearing perfumes and colognes. People with print disabilities, including people with visual disabilities and people who have difficulty handling books and paper, do not feel very welcomed by our continued reliance on paper handouts.

However, knowing that it is impossible to ever build a sanctuary that everyone can dwell in is no excuse for not continually trying. Indeed that is one of the Jewish values I treasure the most – the idea that just because a goal may seem unattainable is no reason not to try to get as close as you can towards the goal. For me, this Jewish value can be summed up as 1) appreciate what you have, 2) be proud of what you've done, 3) know what your priorities are and 4) work as hard as you can to attain your goals even if they seem impossible.

February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month. This year, as I thought about disability awareness, I was struck by the overlap of the Jewish values I just described and the lessons disability teaches. As a person with a disability, I am very appreciative of all that I have, especially all the great people in my life without whom I literally wouldn't be here. I am proud of what I've done. I have a beautiful, wonderful family, home, friends and community. I'm even proud of having designed the 1st 24 by 7 banking system in the U.S. for Wells Fargo. I've always been clear about my priorities. Currently, I'm focused on getting a program called CareerACCESS tested. Career ACCESS programs will be created by changes in federal policy aimed at significantly increasing the employment rate of people with disabilities by expecting young adults with disabilities ages 18 through 30 to work. CareerACCESS will provide required support and services recognizing that disability benefits are offsets to the high costs of disability rather than subsidies for the inability to work. I'm not sure I'll be able to change the entire Social Security disability program in my lifetime, but I am definitely trying!

Often, as I sit in our sanctuary, I am awed by its beauty. When I look at the ramp to the lower part of the bima, I am proud of what we did. As I look at the steps to the upper part of the bima, I am disappointed that we were not able to make that accessible, but I believe that some day someone will figure that out. As I look at the steps leading to the ark, I wonder what it will take to enable God accessible to all people and to truly have a world that we can all dwell in.

Please join us on February 23rd for a mini film festival that will show 3 short films about different aspects related to disability. Please note that on February 24th and 28th, there will be a very exciting program for our religious school students which includes a recorded Skype interview with Judith Heumann, a longtime disability activist and presidential appointee currently working on disability issues worldwide for the U.S. State Department. Judy is one of the most acclaimed people with disabilities in the world who I have been friends with since I was in kindergarten.

For the last few months I have participated in a Temple Sinai task force that is looking at the Temple's mission statements and the need for a vision statement. As I prepared for the task force meeting Thursday evening, I wondered whether the quote inscribed on the ramp may be the basis of the vision statement. Imagine building a community where everyone is welcomed, included, needed and wanted!

Shabbat Shalom and Go! Go! Go!