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.