My Jewish Journey
Aside from my disability, being Jewish has been the most important aspect of my life that has shaped who I am. My parents are both Holocaust survivors. My Mom survived Auschwitz. My Dad dug his grave in the Lodz Ghetto and was scheduled to be shot the morning after the Russians liberated the ghetto. They came to the States in 1949 with my sister. Having a boy in 1952 with a severe disability was devastating to both of them. Due to the Holocaust, disability equated to death. They were determined that I be independent so that I survive.
I learned at a very early age that how you view the world depends on whom you are. My father was the happiest, friendliest, easy-going guy I have yet to meet. His attitude was that if he could survive the war, he was going to be happy. If God exists, my father had paid his dues. My mother was very much the opposite. She cried every day. She prayed all the time, seeking God's help. She was also the strongest, most powerful person I know. Nothing would stand in her way or her family's way.
When I was very little, my father took me to the Orthodox shul near our apartment in Coney Island. When my parents bought a home, we joined a conservative synagogue. The synagogue had an after-school religious program on the 2nd floor in a house next door. Starting at the age of 9, the school bus would drop me off twice a week at the synagogue. My mom would meet me at the bus and help me walk upstairs. Since in public school I was in a segregated program for children with disabilities, this after-school program was really the only time I was with 'normal kids.' While I very much appreciated learning the stories, I never felt comfortable. Few of the teachers or students understood me when I spoke English, let alone Hebrew. My Mom would come back 2 hours later with my bike, help me down the stairs and walked as I pedaled home. I was not allowed to have a wheelchair until I went to high school.
For the reading of the Torah portion, my Bar Mitzvah I had to stand, or actually hang on my father's arms as he held me up. I remember deliberately mispronouncing a word. I wanted to see whether the Rabbi understood anything I was saying. I looked up to see him just smile. I had a huge party in a banquet hall complete with a band, a photographer, flowers, etc. Before the candle lighting ceremony, all the lights in the banquet hall were turned off. My father helped me to a stool near the cake. When I was securely sitting on the stool, the lights went on, and the ceremony proceeded. Afterward, all the lights in the banquet hall were turned off again. My father helped me back to my seat, and the lights went back on.
Throughout high school and undergrad college, I always identified as being Jewish. At Hofstra, I went to a few Jewish parties and a few holiday services. It wasn't until I came to U.C. Berkeley and attended Shabbat Services regularly at Hillel did I realize how wonderful religion, especially Judaism, really is. Rabbi Ballanoff made me see how the people who wrote the Torah created stories that help people know how to live in this world. My roommate at the time was Ched Myers who has since become one of the greatest Christian Theologians of our times. He and I spent an endless number of hours discussing how bible stories and their commentaries provide a framework for people to live by. From these discussions, I realized that what differentiates Judaisms from other religions is the basic tenant that we are all here to make the world 'better.' We don't always get it right and too often get it wrong. Regardless of race, sex, disability, class, nationality, affiliation, religion, etc., we are all trying to help the world evolve. I also greatly appreciate that in Judaism questions are more important than answers.
When we were trying to adopt David, his biological mother was more apprehensive about Denise and I being Jewish than about us having Cerebral Palsy. Her priest reassured her that it would be OK. When David came home, I excitingly called Rabbi Balanoff and asked him to do a baby naming. He reminded me that since the biological mother wasn't Jewish, David would need to wait until he was 13 before deciding to convert. The conversion would include having another circumcision. While I knew that I wouldn't be performing the circumcision, there was something too dogmatic about this. We decided to look for a reform Temple.
We were very lucky to find Rabbi Waldenberg and Temple Isaiah. The congregation was warm and welcoming. A make-shift ramp to the bima was built, and a beautiful baby naming ceremony was held. Denise and I became somewhat involved with the Temple, especially when David was old enough to go to their toddlers' program. One of the biggest honors we received was being invited to the Rabbi's home for a Passover Seder. Upon our arrival, we met 2 women who were hired to help prepare the Seder. I remember thinking that here the 2 women symbolized class. Had those same women done the same work at our house, they would be considered caregivers or attendants. I learned again how important perspective is to the disability experience.
Rabbi Waldenberg retired. The new Rabbi and I were not able to communicate too well. The religious school had some difficulties integrating David. Driving through the tunnel and up and down the narrow winding driveway to Temple Isaiah got hard for me. In 1994, we moved to Temple Sinai and have been active members ever since. Denise started the Access Committee. I served as the 1st Access Committee's representative to the Board before getting my at-large seat. Denise had her Bat Mitzvah here. David had his Bar Mitzvah here. We all went to Israel in 2005 with a group from Temple Sinai. Denise and I have served on many Temple Sinai committees and task forces including several Rabbi Search committees and the Strategic Visioning Task Force. We have also represented Temple Sinai at URJ conferences and at the Hebrew Union College in New York. We like to think that we belong here!
As we move forward in these tumultuous times, the need for clergy and religious lay leaders to help us remember our civility and morality has never been greater. I look forward to working with the Temple Sinai Community towards this end.
Go! Go! Go!