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“Check this Out!” appeared in the subject line on an email to me by Rabbi Barry Kornblau, Director of Member Services from the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). My heart pounding with anticipation, I double clicked the subject line. It was a press release entitled “Disabled Jews Strengthen Orthodox Jewish Communities.” I thought to myself, “This is big… really big.” The RCA, a major Orthodox Rabbinic association officially proclaims the importance of involving Jews with obvious or hidden disabilities in our communities and for the communities to provide us the access, accommodations, and attitudinal shifts we, Jews with disabilities, need in order to be involved.
Early in 2014, and resulting from prior conversations, Rabbi Kornblau asked us at Yad HaChazakah-The Jewish Disability Empowerment Center to provide the first draft of the “whereas” and “therefore” provisions for a proclamation regarding the imperatives to expand disability access to and participation in Jewish communities and Torah life. His request was itself a breakthrough; clear evidence that the RCA, a visionary organization, understood that the voice of the Jewish disability contingent, speaking for itself, is vital in shaping disability policy. We were gratified that the RCA selected Yad HaChazakah, an organization led by and for Jews with obvious or hidden disabilities within Orthodox parameters, to draft the provisions.
The Torah generally doesn’t speak in terms of “rights” of a particular individual or group. Instead it stresses one’s obligations toward G-d or one’s fellow community member. We, Jews with disabilities or ongoing conditions, don’t demand “rights” within Torah, per se. Rather, we understand that the Torah expects us to be part of the community, learn Torah according to our capacities, and perform the many mitzvot (commandments) that apply to us. We cannot achieve these Torah-based expectations unless our communities eliminate the physical, communication, and attitudinal barriers that prevent us from doing so.
Developing the proclamation, in consultation with Yad HaChazakah’s rabbinic advisor and RCA member, Rabbi Benjamin Hecht, was an awesome responsibility! It was necessary for the document to stress the Torah’s concerns for human dignity, our responsibilities towards our fellow Jews, and the mandate to be part of community life. It was vital that it address the broad umbrella of people who are stigmatized due to conditions that affect their appearances, mobility, communication, cognition, mental health, or social or environmental sensitivities. It was essential to use language that reflects the disability empowerment model; not well intentioned social service, special education, caregiver, or medical-rehabilitation terminology.
We congratulate the RCA for its pioneering breakthrough. We look forward to fulfilling the RCA proclamation as we educate Orthodox leaders and community members about the how to better involve people with disabilities in our communities as well as how to push us along with everyone else to learn Torah, do mitzvot and engage in communal services and events. Lastly, we encourage and invite community leaders and members to work with people with the full range of obvious and hidden disabilities and conditions in order to increase disability access and accommodations and to dispel myths and misconceptions.
Sharon Shapiro-Lacks is the Executive Director of Yad HaChazakah-The Jewish Disability Empowerment Center and Rabbi Michael Levy is the Board President. Yad HaChazakah provides guidance, resource information, advocacy, and community for people with obvious or hidden disabilities as we promote access to Jewish community life. Serving all people regardless of background, Yad HaChazakah is led by Jews with disabilities and is operated according to Orthodox Jewish standards. Follow Yad Hachazakah on Facebook.