Educating Ourselves About Disability
February 5, 2013
by Rabbi Ben Elton (’15) for NY Jewish Week
A dozen middle-aged to elderly Israelis, some blind, some deaf, some both, baking bread. It is not the most promising theatrical concept, but it works.
Rabbinical students from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat attended a recent performance of Not By Bread Alone at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, staged by the Nalaga’at Theater, an Israeli company made up of the deaf-blind. It came towards the end of a week devoted to learning about disability. Every other year the yeshiva spends a week examining the issue, alternating between developmental and learning, and as in this year, physical disability. The program is sponsored by Shelley and Ruvan Cohen, in memory of their son Nathaniel, who had Duchenne muscular dystrophy and died as a young man a few years ago. Shelley Cohen also played a leading role in organizing and presenting the week’s program.
For me, the week was a paradigm shift. We all know that there are people within our communities with disabilities, and we all know that provision should be made. But how often do we walk up a flight of stairs into a synagogue building or its sanctuary without noticing the absence of a ramp? Have we ever wondered why we have never seen a person with a mobility disability receive an aliyah? Is it because no such people exist, or because they cannot approach the Torah with dignity? Do our synagogues have Braille siddurim and chumashim (Bibles)? Is a signer available if a deaf congregant wants to attend a shiur, or class? Every day we call God ‘hamelamed Torah le’amo Yisrael’ – the One who teaches Torah to His people, Israel’, yet we deny access to God’s Torah to the many members of our communities.