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Opening Up to the Disabled

How the Orthodox community can do more

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Rabbi Avi Weiss is no stranger to pushing boundaries: Recently, and controversially, he gave Sara Hurwitz the term “rabba,” making her the highest-profile female cleric in the Orthodox community. But at a lecture series held last week at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the rabbinical school Rabbi Weiss founded in 1999, a different sort of inclusion was up for discussion.

The lectures—which were sponsored by friends of mine, Ruvan and Shelley Cohen—focused on the Orthodox community’s failure to embrace children with developmental and learning disabilities. The Cohens endowed the series in memory of their son, Nathaniel. Nathaniel died three years ago, at age 21, of complications from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, which had left him wheelchair-bound at an early age.

“We in the Jewish community are very good at acknowledging the importance of inclusiveness on a theoretical level, but fall woefully short on inclusiveness in practice,” said Rabbi Dov Linzer, dean of YCT. “Ten percent of our community is being regularly ignored and pushed away.”

At one session, students heard from a panel of parents and siblings of disabled children, including the New York City-based mother of a two-year-old born with Down syndrome. She recounted how difficult it was to place her child in a Jewish school. “In New York,” she explained, “it’s hard enough to get your typical two-year-old into a school, much less one with Down syndrome.” She still has been unable to find a Jewish day school willing to accept her child, even after offering to pay for a “shadow teacher” to accompany her daughter throughout the school day. “Isn’t it the community’s responsibility,” she asked, “to provide my child with access to a Jewish education?”

A rabbi who is also the mother of a severely autistic child offered further insight. “Unwittingly,” she said, “my synagogue excommunicates children with disabilities.” Both parents urged congregations to sponsor “Disability Shabbats,” to focus attention on the problems facing special needs children and their families, and to bring in speakers and circulate articles that will raise awareness of the need for inclusion.

Rabbi Saul Berman, a leading Orthodox thinker and teacher, delivered a paper addressing how Jewish tradition views inclusiveness. He stressed the need to be aware of the emotional lives of the disabled, and their vulnerability. “You must be sensitized,” he said, “to their relation to organizations like synagogues and schools; the role of friendship; the sense of disillusionment; and, in general, their level of spiritual vulnerability.” I couldn’t help but think of the old adage that history judges civilizations by their treatment of their most vulnerable members—a sobering thought, given the challenges these activists still face.

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Opening Up to the Disabled

How the Orthodox community can do more

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