After 5 weeks of intensive study, the Summer Beit Midrash fellows have spent the past week working on Rabbi Klapper’s Shayla on Halakha and disabilities. You can find the Shayla below. We’d love to hear your thoughts, comments and questions! Please feel free to comment on this blog, Facebook or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I received the attached letter this morning. After the fiasco last year during your sabbatical when Mr. Yosef objected at the Sefardi minyan when your rabbinic intern insisted that we give that homeless blind man an aliyah, and the whole fight last month when you insisted that Mr. Reiner, no matter how old he was, could only duchen if he stood up without his walker, this is probably the last thing you need, and I’m sorry to inflict it on you. But I think you do need to respond to this family, and maybe it’s a chance for you to give the whole shul a real sense of your overall vision of how Orthodoxy should relate to people with disabilities. Maybe this bar mitzvah will give you a valuable chance to be proactive and not just react when hard cases happen.
P.S. You know everything that happens here ends up fodder for the blogosphere, so I think it would be a good idea to have a formal teshuvah on the bar mitzvah issue ready. We can put that on your blog!
To: Mr. Jacob Hagiz, President, Young Israel of Bedrock (BeitYakov@darkages.com)
From: Mr. Yitzchak Taylor-Kogan (email@example.com)
Dear Mr. Hagiz,
Shalom uvrakhah. My name is Yitzchak Taylor Kogan. I am a potential congregant who has recently moved to your neighborhood. Please allow me to introduce myself. I apologize in advance if my writing is somewhat stilted, and if this letter is overlong – my first language is ASL, and translating my thoughts and emotions into English can be challenging.
I was born in Steubenville, Ohio, in 1964, to a nonobservant Jewish family. I was born unable to hear anything. My parents tried to raise me in the “oral method”, and refused to allow me to sign until I was eight. This failed completely, and I am still unable to speak any words intelligibly other than “yes”, “no”, and “hurt”. In 1972 they sent me instead to a school that taught ASL, and I flourished.
However, this school had no Jewish content. I was bar mitzvahed in our Reform temple in 1977 without performing any ritual other than wearing a tallit, and that was really my only Jewish exposure until I went to college, although my family always took pride in our status as kohanim.
I attended Overland College and was drawn to the amazingly open and inclusive Hillel there, and began attending Friday night services (they always had an interpreter) and attending Shabbat dinners. At one of those dinners I met Rivkah, who would become my wife. Rivkah is hearing but does not have the use of her legs. She was also from a weak Jewish background, but we grew religiously together. By the time we graduated she would often lead the Friday night services, and afterward I would give the Priestly Blessing in Sign.
Why am I writing all this? Our youngest son Azriel will be bar mitzvah soon, and we are thinking very hard about how that should be. Also, we are worried about Binyamin, our oldest son, who often expresses frustration that the synagogues we attend do not invite him to read Torah or lead services, and he gets an aliyah only on Simchat Torah. Some synagogues have even discouraged him from duchaning because they say that is voice is unmusical and both distracts and detracts from the beauty and solemnity of the ritual.
I shouldn’t give you the impression that it’s only the children. Rivkah and I among ourselves often wonder why shul can’t be more open and welcoming the way our Hillel was. Also, there are parshiyot in the Torah that are hard for us to understand – why are kohanim excluded from the Temple Service just because they have physical blemishes? Why isn’t there a special mitzvah to help the blind, instead of just a prohibition against tripping them? Why do prophets use disability as a threat or as a metaphor of insult?
The short of it is that it’s more than Azriel’s bar mitzvah – we want to find a community that values us and makes us feel like we are contributors and not guests or difficult relatives. We want our children to feel welcomed and equal to all their peers. We want to be part of a community that understands Torah in a way that recognizes us as beings created in the image of G-d rather than as damaged goods and/or objects of sympathy.
So please tell us what your community is like, and what Azriel’s bar mitzvah would be like in your shul. We look forward to your reply.
Yitzchak, Rivkah, Binyamin, and Azriel Taylor-Kogan.
How would you answer this Shayla? Stay tuned for tshuvot from Rabbi Klapper and the fellows!