Boker Tov! Good Morning!
As I begin this keynote, you'll notice I have a unique way of speaking. Two reasons for it: First, I was born and raised in The Bronx, New York. Second. I have a disability--Cerebral Palsy or CP—which I've had since birth. CP mainly affects the part of the brain that controls voluntary movement, as with Neil and myself. But it can also affect area of the brain that are responsible for sight, hearing, cognition, and speech, depending on how the brain was impacted. There are several different types of CP, and no two people will have it the same way.... But getting back to my speech, it may take some of you a bit of time to get used to or comfortable with my accent. And that's okay. In the end, I always get my point across..., unless I'm arguing with Neil!
Today, I like to share with you my experience with Jewish Education both as a child and as an adult. Growing up, I didn't get a formal Jewish education. I never went to Hebrew or Religious School. My family weren't Synagogue Jews. My father went to High Holiday Services and, when a close relative died, he'd go say Kaddish during the year of mourning... My mother only went to say Yizkor for her mother. And to be honest I think my parents just had their hands too full raising two little girls, one of which, me, had a disability. Looking at the big picture, Religious School wasn't that important anyway, since only boys in my family had B'nei Mitzvahs... I remember my parents did send my sister one year, but she was never into it. I, on the other hand would have loved to go—but in those days, it was just an accepted norm that kids with disabilities weren't integrated into activities with children who didn't have disabilities.
So, how did I learn to be Jewish? Where did I get my Jewish identity? Well, from my family, of course! My father's parents emigrated from Russia/Poland to escape the Pogroms in the late 1800s. They were Orthodox Jews and remained so all their lives, so I knew that they didn't do certain things, like use the phone or ride on Saturday—on Shabbos. My father was less observant. I think because he often had to work on Saturdays. As for my mother's side of the family, both her parents were born in the United States. They prided themselves on being Americanized, hardly even spoke Yiddish. Yet, the maternal side of my mother's family kept their Jewish rituals. So, in the home I grew up, in we kept kosher, we lit Shabbos candles; my mother recited the prayer she had from her mother—with a few of the words, as I later learned, mispronounced.
In my informal Jewish upbringing, I learned about observing holidays—Rosh HaShonah, Yom Kippur, Chanukkah, Pesach. The stories. The food. The culture. The dos and don'ts. I remember going the Bar Mitzvah celebrations of all my male cousins on Saturday nights or Sunday afternoons, not even knowing they had been called up to the Torah on Shabbos morning. As a matter of fact, I don't remember even hearing the word “Torah” ever referred to when I was young.
I was always curious about knowing more but whenever I asked questions, I just received cursory answers. “Why don't Grandpa and Grandma ride on Shabbos?” “It's a sin!” “Why can't they turn on the lights?” “It's work!” The answers didn't make much sense to me. Neither did why only boys got to have Bar Mitzvahs! So in my mind, I grew to view Judaism as restrictive and very patriarchal.
When I moved to the West Coast in my twenties, I'd be invited to a Seder for Passover or a friend would drag to a High Holiday service, and although I would never admit, I longed to belong to a Jewish community. But I never felt like I fit in. I always felt like a stranger. No one was friendly. They were uncomfortable around me, so I was uncomfortable around them. It seemed like the very people who are inherently taught to remember their history of oppression and prejudice, were all too ready to exclude me. It didn't seem very Jewish to me!
So, nu, what happened? How did I get here—of all places?
Well, for one thing, I became a parent, and since Neil and I lived 3,000 miles away from our families, we wanted to make sure our son David got a sense of being “Jewish.” We enrolled him in Religious School.
I was definitely out of my comfort zone. David learned things that I had no clue about: Tzedakah boxes. Parshat. Havdalah.
Luckily, in the Reform Synagogue, Temple Sinai, where we ended up, there were enough congregants, clergy, and staff—just a handful, at first—who made us feel welcome. Rabbi Chester didn't bat an eye when we showed up the day of registration. He introduced us to Brunetta, who worked in the office; she nonchalantly asked if we wanted help filling out the forms. Barbara from the membership committee came to our home to welcome us as congregants. I met people who truly understood how to role model Jewish values. I was fascinated by a Judaism that centered around building community, a Judaism that requires us to show up and learn.
I began to attend services, take classes, become active and, speak up about accessibility. And I found out I wasn't alone; there were others in the congregation who spoke up, too. I began to get called on to join committees. The more I got involved, the more I broke down physical and attitudinal barriers toward disability along with other members of the congregation. Not all. It might never be all. But eventually, I felt a part of the Temple Sinai community.
Somewhere, along the line, Rabbi Chester put the bug in my ear—actually from the bimah at David's Bar Mitzvah—that I should have a Bat Mitvah of my very own. After thinking about it for a couple of years, I started to study Hebrew, began taking voice lessons, and set the date. I led the congregation in a Shabbat service one July morning in 2005, with a few accommodations. If I had it to do over, I'd give a shorter Drash!
But let's go back to Jewish Values. If you think about it, the great thing about Jewish Values is that they don't discriminate! That's why, as Jewish educators, you have a unique opportunity when you have kids with disabilities in your classroom because you're in a position to mold behaviors that foster confidence, community, and Jewish Values for every student. You can teach them that everyone has worth and ability, that everyone is made B'tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. And it's not just your students who will benefit; it's their families as well. Parents of children with disabilities often feel isolated from other parents. They can experience being just as left out because of assumptions made about their child because he/she has a disability. They are used to having their child perceived as different in the secular world. But you have chance as teachers to educate, to be facilitators and role models of inclusion.
Isn't that the real beginning of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world?