Navigate to Community section

The Minyan: Jews With Disabilities

A roundtable discussion about physical barriers, attitude adjustment, and how to be more welcoming as a community

by
Abigail Pogrebin
November 17, 2022
Tablet Magazine
The written description of the image that appears here is the ‘alt text’ coded into the website for accessibility. When alt text is available, screen readers, certain browsers, and accessibility apps can detect the text and read it aloud or translate it to Braille, so visually impaired users can navigate and understand the page. To read more about alt text and its uses and challenges in making the internet accessible, visit https://tabletm.ag/alt-text.Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
The written description of the image that appears here is the ‘alt text’ coded into the website for accessibility. When alt text is available, screen readers, certain browsers, and accessibility apps can detect the text and read it aloud or translate it to Braille, so visually impaired users can navigate and understand the page. To read more about alt text and its uses and challenges in making the internet accessible, visit https://tabletm.ag/alt-text.Tablet Magazine
The Minyan is a series of moderated roundtable discussions about the state of the Jewish community in America from a variety of perspectives. By bringing together at least 10 people from a shared demographic or background—everyday” people with personal opinions, not “experts” or titled professionals who earn their salaries by crafting statements on these issues—we hope to foster conversations that will illuminate how different kinds of people think about the larger Jewish community, and their own place in it. Read other installments of The Minyan here.
The Minyan is a series of moderated roundtable discussions about the state of the Jewish community in America from a variety of perspectives. By bringing together at least 10 people from a shared demographic or background—everyday” people with personal opinions, not “experts” or titled professionals who earn their salaries by crafting statements on these issues—we hope to foster conversations that will illuminate how different kinds of people think about the larger Jewish community, and their own place in it. Read other installments of The Minyan here.

Before each Zoom roundtable we conduct for The Minyan, I do weeks of pre-interviews with our participants and others to get a sense of the broader issues each group is facing and cares about. If there’s one major takeaway I got from talking with Jewish Americans with physical disabilities, it’s how basic the missteps can be from our Jewish institutions—and how indelible the kindnesses, as well. The stories will speak for themselves in the transcribed conversation below, but one participant’s comment, at the conclusion of our hourlong discussion, pulled us up short and highlighted the fact that simply listening is all too rare:

“Very often in these kinds of spaces, when we talk about disability, we don’t include the voices of people with disabilities,” said Michelle. “We talk to the service providers and other people. I appreciate the fact that you’ve gotten 10 people together with varying disabilities to talk, to tell our story, to hear our voices. I say that on behalf of myself, but I hope I speak on behalf of all of us.”

With this Minyan, we set out to hear from people with disabilities directly. To ensure that every person could participate fully, this was the first Minyan where our Zoom discussion included closed captioning, two ASL interpreters, and two family members who were on hand to help their loved ones get their points across clearly.

Jewish teaching often focuses on welcoming the stranger and the idea that every human is made in the image of God. We asked these generous participants if Jewish leaders and congregants, however well-meaning, are living up to that charge.

THE PARTICIPANTS

Their ages, locations, and how they describe their disabilities

Dawn: 53, Decatur, Georgia, deaf

Michelle: 64, Skokie, Illinois, blind

Barbara: 74, Scarsdale, New York. A severe stroke affected her ability to walk, speak, and communicate clearly.

Marie: 36, Boston suburb, Down syndrome

Leah: 36, Maryland, blind

Dahlia: 45, Riverdale, New York. “I’m a person of short stature.”

Eric: 45, Chester, New York. “I’m a spinal-cord injury quadriplegic.”

Jason: 43, Manhattan, cerebral palsy

Tali: 30, San Diego. “I have a variety of chronic illness conditions and I’m also a wheelchair user.”

Ben: 43, Cambridge, Massachusetts, cerebral palsy

I’d like to start by asking you to raise your hands if you are comfortable with my using the word “disability.” I am seeing all hands raised. Thank you—I just wanted to make sure our readers understood that I use the term because you said it was apt and comfortable.

Next question: Can some of you share what specific barriers have existed for you in Jewish spaces—meaning synagogues, seminaries, JCCs, or what you consider a Jewish space?

Leah: In Jewish educational contexts, often there were barriers around access to texts that I needed in Braille. I’m a Braille reader. And some of the teaching methods were very visual while I am very auditory. That often posed a challenge.

Barbara: I can’t see pages at my synagogue. Pages. They’re going too fast.

Eric: My barriers are all physical—obviously, as a wheelchair user. You know, whether they have ramps in the right places, whether everything is on one level. For most bimahs, they’re not going to have a ramp to get up there, so I’m going to be off to the side.

Eric, you told me when we first spoke about how basic and decisive stairs can be in terms of making synagogue accessible or not.

Eric: It doesn’t matter which building it is—your temple, your center, or your Chabad, is it going to have all the necessary needs for a wheelchair? When I was first hurt 30 years ago, very few bimahs would have a ramp to get up. So you’re kind of stuck. If you get any kind of bimah honor, you’re stuck below everybody.

Dahlia: Similar to Eric, I feel like physical accommodations need to be made. But to me, the piece that I feel gets in the way of physical barriers is this: The Jewish community sees itself—and this is a generalization, but I’m ready to make it—as a welcoming community. Right? I’m a rabbi. We strive to be a welcoming community. Every congregation sees themselves as welcoming. So when we point out the ways that they’re not, there is a real wall there. It’s hard to break it, saying, “You have to recognize the ways actually that you’re not welcoming … I’m not saying you’re not a welcoming place, but these barriers suggest that you are not.” I have found that my barrier has often been this: convincing people that they are creating walls when they just don’t believe that they are. Because they really have a different sense of self as a community.

Leah, have you, as a member of the clergy, seen strides made during your tenure as a rabbi?

Leah: I do think we’re moving in a better direction. It’s not quite as fast as I would like it.

Tali: I think a lot of the time, when people say things are accessible, they’re not. Saying you’re accessible doesn’t mean that you’re accessible to everyone. For me, trying to get involved in the Jewish community of 20- to 30-year-olds has been difficult because 20- or 30-year-olds generally are active. There’s a lot of physical activities, late nights, getting from place to place. But there’s a lot of locations where you can’t necessarily park close by, even just sit down. So I think that has been a challenge for me in Jewish life—that people don’t necessarily think of everyone when they’re choosing a venue or setting a time.

Dawn: Barriers exist for deaf people. For example, if I want to go to an event at the synagogue, I have to ask in advance if I can have an interpreter for it, as opposed to it already being accessible with an interpreter or CART [Communication Access Realtime Translation] reporting. I’m feeling like I don’t want to impose, because it’s not cheap to hire an interpreter, or a CART reporter. I don’t want to make them pay all this money just for me. It should already be there, as opposed to us having to make the effort. It takes so much effort for deaf people to be part of the hearing world. So a lot of deaf people tend to leave.

Michelle: I think there’s an assumption somehow in our communities that the blind people, deaf people, people in wheelchairs aren’t going to synagogue, aren’t going to our schools, and aren’t in our communities. Consequently, I think that attitude and assumptions do not make for an actually welcoming community. I have to always ask for everything to be sent to me in advance, and it’s not always so easy. Please send me stuff in an accessible format. Don’t make the assumption that there aren’t blind people or deaf people in our communities. That’s been my biggest barrier. And that we don’t have a voice. I’m fortunate enough to be the chairman of a board in Chicago of a big organization that serves people with disabilities, but I find that outside of that community, there’s an assumption that we don’t need to have a voice.

We have to constantly advocate for ourselves and ask for things. That makes us outsiders.

Two people I spoke to used the word “segregation” to describe how the disabled are treated in Jewish spaces. Raise your hand if that word rings true. Jason is the only one with a hand up.

Jason: I think we’re kind of left out and put off to the side, as Eric mentioned earlier. We have to constantly advocate for ourselves and ask for things. That makes us outsiders. Because those things sometimes cost money and they’re not high on the priority list of the congregation or school or seminary or JCC or Jewish communal space. They’re not high on the radar screen because there are lots and lots of needs in the Jewish community. So we kind of get lost in the shuffle sometimes. And in that way we’re segregated, because we are outside the groups that these organizations are reaching for. Someone said earlier about Jewish spaces feeling like they’re accessible when they’re not. The spaces that the person in a wheelchair has to sit in, for example, are often either in the back or the very front and kind of off to the side. That can be kind of a segregating space because you’re facing the fire exits.

Ben, when we spoke in our pre-interview, you mentioned that people often assume what makes things difficult, and they miss what actually is.

Ben: I walk with two canes. So people look at me and say, “Oh, this is a guy who has a physical disability. He walks with two canes.” But in terms of my day-to-day life, the harder thing is having executive function issues and spatial perception issues, which are part and parcel of having cerebral palsy—those are much bigger challenges: getting myself organized and through the day.

I want to follow up a little bit on something Dahlia raised: the Jewish community’s sense of itself. We almost don’t want to acknowledge or admit that we’re falling short here, because we have this sense of what it means to be welcoming, which is very much in our tradition, in our texts. I don’t need to remind this group, but I’m just going to do it for the sake of this discussion: Judaism talks about welcoming the stranger, the widow, the orphan. Leviticus says, “Do not insult the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind.” Are these Jewish mandates being met when it comes to Jews with disabilities?

Tali: We wouldn’t be having this Minyan if it did. So, for sure I think we’ve got a long way to go. But I think, you know, culture, technology, even COVID jump-started a lot of access advances that should have been dealt with years ago. But I don’t know that we’re there yet. We try. I think we’re willing more than other groups, but not quite there.

Marie, did you have any thoughts about whether Judaism is as welcoming as it says it is?

It is also up to us to be out there and show that we want to be involved in order to get all accommodations to make it easier for us.

Marie: I went to Camp Gesher for people who have special needs. I learned a lot about Jewish religion and different Jewish traditions. I went to Camp Ramah—the Jewish overnight camp. I do magic tricks there with my friends and had a good time and feel welcomed.

What are some of the other best parts of Jewish camp?

Marie: It was overnight. It was wonderful, meeting new people. I have friends from camp. I went to my counselor’s wedding. I went to Israel. And I lost my luggage for five days, so I had to borrow one of my counselor’s clothes. But I had a wonderful time in Israel. And then I worked at Camp Ramah. I was 17 in 2004 when I started at Camp Ramah and I am still there.

Can I ask the two clergy to respond to the question of whether you think Jewish values or Jewish teachings are being met?

Dahlia: I have really ambivalent feelings about that question. I’ve thought about that a lot. There are lots of texts about people with disabilities, and there’s that famous text in Sanhedrin [37a] with the coin that talks about how God created everybody to be different, right? To emphasize difference. [“And this serves to tell of the greatness of the Holy One, Blessed be He, as when a person stamps several coins with one seal, they are all similar to each other. But the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, stamped all people with the seal of Adam the first man, as all of them are his offspring, and not one of them is similar to another.”] But I sometimes worry that those texts actually create groups, and they tell you to be aware of groups as opposed to creating a society—I think Tali spoke of this before—where you just have to be aware of everyone’s needs, as opposed to targeting a few different groups. Those texts really create a sense of other and if someone’s in the category of other, we have a responsibility to bring them in. But that means there’s still the idea of the outsider who we’re bringing in. So that’s my ambivalence. On the other hand, I think theologically speaking, there’s a radical component to our texts, where so early on, there was a real push by the rabbis to articulate an understanding of this idea of reaching out—to not put stumbling blocks, as you mentioned. Is it my experience that we’re living up to that? I don’t know. I think we’re trying. I think just the fact that such a thing as Jewish Disability Month [February] exists is an attempt to be more outspoken about it. But I think there’s still a feeling of other, which is maybe what Jason tried to capture by discussing segregation. As long as there’s that sense of other, it’s hard to be a part.

Leah: I could not more beautifully articulate what Dahlia said. I also share the concerns around texts and how they’re used, because I do think that they can create that sense of other. At the same time, I want to teach those texts because I recognize that there are people for whom disability is otherwise not on their radar. Not all Jewish texts are complimentary about disability, but I’m committed to working with the texts that are difficult. I do believe theologically that Judaism has a very radical idea that everyone is created in the image of God, everyone has equal value and worth. For me personally as a blind woman, I do think that there is something very important about the fact there are blind rabbis in the Talmud, who not only talk about blindness but about everything else. They are part of the Beit Midrash [house of study]—the back-and-forth conversation. When I was in rabbinical school, that was very empowering. Even in these ancient texts, we’ve got visible disability—a few portraits of blind folks who are rabbis in their own right and in the Beit Midrash.

It’s one thing to say you’re inclusive. It’s another thing to be a community that’s inclusive.

I want to return to the issue of cost when it comes to making accommodations for congregants or attendees with disabilities. Some synagogues I spoke to asked me, “Are we supposed to make changes before we even know how many congregants or visitors will benefit from those changes?” Eric, when it comes to building ramps, updating elevators or bathrooms, hiring interpreters, things that can have a big price tag, how do you respond to those who say there are budget realities we have to weigh?

Eric: There’s ways around everything. You need to decide how you’re going to build your community. The one thing I will say to this group, though, is it is also up to us to be out there and show that we want to be involved in order to get all accommodations to make it easier for us. That’s one of the things that’s got to happen first: making sure that we use our voice as we’re doing now. Then the costs will come along, because as everybody says, we are an inclusive community once we start forcing it to be. We’ll accept anybody if we see them, but if we stay in the shadows, then they’re not going to do it.

Dawn, I just want to follow up on what you said earlierthat you feel you are always putting someone out when you ask for these added things. They’re not necessarily being offered.

Dawn: When I started out, interpreters were paid like $40 an hour; now they’re like $80 to $100 an hour. It’s a big expense. I have found that synagogues and other organizations will get grants from the federation for accessibility, and they used those to pay for interpreters. For High Holiday services this year, it was the first time that a group had Yom Kippur day services and reached out to me for names of some interpreters. That’s amazing—when someone just asks me for a name and they do it themselves. But 99% of the time I have to say, “Can you have an interpreter?”

I want to shift to the positive and to invite you all to share very specific examples of where the Jewish community has made you feel a true sense of belonging.

Marie: I go to Temple Sinai in Sharon, and my boyfriend—who is sitting behind me right now—he comes to temple with me. My dad is deaf also, so my mom interprets for my dad. It’s wonderful. The rabbi always includes me. On the High Holidays, me and my dad get honored and get to open the ark.

Barbara: I had my stroke just before my daughter’s wedding. My daughter is a cantor. My life changed in an instant. I could not talk to my husband or my children any more. I was a librarian but I could not read or write. I could not walk or get dressed by myself. Stopped working. It was so hard not to work.

I know this year you were invited to speak from the bimah during the High Holidays. Was that positive for you?

Barbara: Yes! I felt honored and I practiced. It was an honor for me. My son was there and the synagogue was very supportive.

I want to get at whether people are feeling welcome by the leaders of their Jewish institutions.

We’re all humans. Why treat us differently? Why look at us any differently?

Michelle: I live in Skokie, a suburb of Chicago. I’ve lived in my community for a hundred years and I went to day school in my community; people know me from the time that I was visually impaired to the time, 30 years ago when I lost my vision totally. I just don’t feel othered. I am a leader in my community and I’m always the only disabled person at the table. I’m always wondering, “Where are all the other disabled people?”

Can I ask you for a very specific moment when a clergy person or lay leader really got it right?

Michelle: When I was serving on a board and somebody turned to me and said, “Would you serve as the board chair?” Not, “Can you serve as the board chair?”

Anyone else?

Tali: I work as a teacher at my temple. Last year was my first year as a wheelchair user in any job. I was so anxious because while they had known me before and had always sort of accommodated, I was trying to get comfortable with being more visibly disabled. I’ve always had invisible disabilities, but having it be in their faces was different. I remember preparing in my head the night before, superanxious, deep breaths, woke up, got to the temple, and as I rolled up, some were already there having breakfast—obviously, bagels—and they simply said, “Hey, you want to sit here?” And I said, “Sure.” And they just took a chair away, made it easy for me to join them. It’s been that smooth ever since.


Ben: My example happened growing up in the U.K. As you may or may not know, it’s pretty standard for involved Jewish 16-year-olds to go to Israel for a month. And I remember the summer before that, the shaliach [emissary] of the youth movement actually pulled me aside. We sat together and he said, “Look, Ben. I can well imagine the Jewish Agency is going to give you a tough time about coming to Israel on an organized tour for a month because they say they’re not equipped to deal with your disability. I’m going to make it my life’s work—I’ll work hard for you over the next year—to make sure that we can bring you to Israel.” And ultimately, that’s exactly what happened.

Eric: For me, it was seeing the ramp for the first time up to the bimah. The simplest thing. Again, my disability is physical. Once you actually make that accommodation, you satisfy my needs.

Jason: I know Marie already mentioned Camp Ramah, but they have a program now at all the Ramah camps called Tikvah that is specially for people with disabilities. I specifically did not want to be in the Tikvah program; I wanted to be in a regular bunk. And it took a lot of advocacy, but the counselors made it their business to make me feel comfortable while I was a camper. Then a few years later, when I wanted to go to Israel, they told me I couldn’t go. Which led to my parents actually getting involved and helping make sure that didn’t happen to other people. So now Camp Ramah’s summer program in Israel—called Ramah Seminar—is accessible based on the needs of the individuals that are going that particular summer. So even the part they got wrong, they eventually got right.

Jason, since you’ve made clear you did not want to be separated into a different camp bunk, I want to give you a chance to address the word “inclusion.” Is that a word that bothers you? How do you approach the idea of being included?

I might have a positive attitude as an individual, but if it’s coming from above and it’s actually permeating, there’s a sense of leadership about it, then people will take the lead from that and take their cue from it.

Jason: Words bother me less than attitudes. And as one of the founders of February Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month—and they’re adding other letters as we speak because we love acronyms—we’ve seen a lot of growth in February. I think now our job is to make it so that the growth we’ve seen in February also happens in January and March. And April and May. In June and July. August, September, October and November and December. [Laughter] I think we’ve made tremendous progress and people pat themselves on the back for doing inclusive programming that one month of the year. And it’s time for us to make it year-round.

Does anyone else want to say anything about the word “inclusion”?

Dawn: Inclusion is good if you don’t simply have the resources to include the people, but you also welcome them. It’s one thing to have interpreters, but it’s another to have people come to sit with you after services, talk to you and get to know you. You want to go to the temple website and see that you are represented. See an interpreter. Or see people in a wheelchair. Not just one person alone but to see them interacting with others. It’s one thing to say you’re inclusive. It’s another thing to be a community that’s inclusive.

Dahlia: I have two very quick positive moments. One back at that Camp Ramah—my first summer camp as a staff member. I was maybe not even 20. And the woman who was in charge of maintenance came up to me and said, “What accommodations do you need?” And I said, “No, no, I don’t need any accommodations.” And she looked at me and she said, “I don’t know if you’re aware, but you’re a lot shorter than everybody else here. You must need accommodations, and it is our responsibility to accommodate for you. What accommodations do you need?” At that moment Camp Ramah became my home.

Wonderful.

Dahlia: The other story I’ll share is when I arrived at rabbinical school and I tried to ask for really basic, silly physical accommodations, mostly just stools—these are things that could be bought at the local pharmacy. It was really a challenge and I fought quite a battle. But my biggest battle at my school was that I was constantly confused with or mistaken for another short-statured woman who had gone to school there at least a decade before me. Everybody confused us. And when I fought with them and said, “No, no, I’m not that person that you think I am!” They said, “No, no, of course you are; you just don’t remember me.” Anyway, my third or fourth year, we had a new dean, and in our first conversation she confused me with this other person again. And she realized it right away, looked at me and said, “I just confused you for someone else, didn’t I?” And I said, “Yes.” And she said, “I’m so sorry.” And I said, “No, no, it’s OK.” And she said, “Oh, no, I’m so sorry.” She became my rabbi.

Anybody else on specific positive memories?

Barbara: I was visited by so many rabbis and cantors when I came home from the hospital. And I was honored by Temple Israel Center. A lovely evening.

I’d like to see people say hi. It’s a really easy thing to do. Turn to the person next to you and introduce yourself and not be afraid you’re going to catch their disability. We’re not contagious; we’re just people.

Leah: After my second year of rabbinical school, I had a really difficult semester, and I’d heard about this organization that was running a Talmud camp. I went because, you know, I’m a rabbinical student nerd. And I also thought, “Maybe this is an opportunity for me to better learn Gemara.” And when I got there, the head teacher basically said, “I totally believe you can learn Gemara—as well, if not better, than the other students. And what do we need to make it happen?” And I teach Gemara now all the time because of that wonderful camp. It changed my life.

Marie: When I was like 13, I had a bat mitzvah and there was one little word I couldn’t say in Hebrew. And I had a tutor help me. She helped me a lot. And during my bat mitzvah, I did it! My rabbi helped a lot. One of my cantors was crying. And everyone else said, “Wow, Marie. That was a really good bat mitzvah.”

I want to ask Eric, Barbara, and Tali—the three in this group who have handled the transition of starting life without a disability and then making the transition to having one: How, through a Jewish lens, did that transition affect your Jewish engagement, if at all?

Eric: I think at the beginning, when everybody wanted to treat me with white gloves, it made me maybe want to stay away, because the more you pay attention to me, the more disabled I feel. As I’ve gotten older and I have accepted it more, I’ve felt included. I didn’t have to force my way into anything. But the more I participated, the more I just was welcomed into the community as I had been. So while at the beginning, you know, everybody doesn’t know how to react when you have a major accident and that transition, when I was ready to accept the welcome, it was actually more welcoming.

Tali: I’ve been in the disabled community my whole life, but most of my issues weren’t visible, so it was easy to fly under the radar. But when I was in the middle of a flare-up, my issues became visible. Recently things have amped up in my body and we can’t figure out quite what it is; some kind of autoimmune condition is causing me to continually go downhill a bit steadily. I’m a wheelchair user now. I wish I’d had it sooner. Before I had the wheelchair, the clergy, community, and my peers didn’t quite understand.

Barbara, I know you used to be able to express yourself more easily in terms of speech and participation. Can you talk about the change for you in the Jewish world in particular?

Barbara: I had a stroke and I had aphasia. I couldn’t talk. I had to learn everything again. I worked hard, to get better and be independent. I was in the hospital for months. And I was visited by the rabbi. The cantor came to visit me often. I needed their spiritual support. And I got better. And I went to services. Shabbat services are meaningful for me. I was greeted with a wonderful welcome, happy to see me. Home. I was home and it was a wonderful feeling. I went to my daughter’s wedding.

Let me ask all of you: Beyond the ramps, beyond the interpreters, what attitude changes in fellow Jews would make you feel a more authentic sense of welcome or belonging?

Eric: I would ask people, “Don’t look at me any differently.” We’re all humans. Why treat us differently? Why look at us any differently?

Tali: Be open-minded and be willing to admit that maybe things aren’t accessible. Ask, be open—not scared of—questions, and show that there’s a willingness to accommodate.

When you say “scared of questions,” what do you mean?

I think God charged me just like God charged every member of my community with responsibility toward creating equal community, embracing communities that seek to do good in the world.

Tali: Scared to ask individuals such as myself and people here, “What do you need?” or “What can we do?” Involve us in a conversation.

Barbara: Please be patient. Help other people. Heal other people. Honor the commandment to be holy as God is holy.

Michelle: A lot of times the community views “welcoming” as taking care of our disabled population—a medical model more than a social justice and equality model. I think that’s a problem. I don’t need to be taken care of. I want to be equal, to be included; I want to participate.

Ben: So much of the standards can be set by the people in leadership positions. I know that sounds like a silly thing to say because it’s potentially very obvious, but it’s a case of setting an attitude from the leadership positions. I’m thinking of a particular rabbi in my life who, when I walked in the shul, he came all the way from the front of the shul to the back—to greet me, chat with me, to say, “How can we get this Shabbat thing done right for you?” It’s like everybody takes their lead from that, from the attitude that that is pervasive in the institution. I might have a positive attitude as an individual, but if it’s coming from above and it’s actually permeating, there’s a sense of leadership about it, then people will take the lead from that and take their cue from it. Because everybody wants to be welcoming.

Michelle: I can boil it down to one sentence: See disability as just a normal part of the human experience. What would I want to say to people? “We’re not abnormal. Disability is a part of the human experience.”

Jason: I’d like to see people say hi. It’s a really easy thing to do. Turn to the person next to you and introduce yourself and not be afraid you’re going to catch their disability. We’re not contagious; we’re just people, and need to be approached as people, which is something that has been repeated over and over again in this discussion.

You just mentioned the word contagious. This came up in several of my pre-interviews: an irrational fear that some people have—despite the Jewish mantra of welcoming the stranger—of almost getting close to someone with a disability.

Leah: I think that the fear of disability is something that we need to talk more about. We don’t like to deal with the things that terrify us. The Jewish tradition reminds us that we are all created b’tselem elohim—“in the image of God.” We all have inherent value and dignity; havod habriyot—“human dignity”—is a central Jewish value. It’s not just words, it’s actions. That’s what I would really love to see.

I think that the fear of disability is something that we need to talk more about. We don’t like to deal with the things that terrify us.

We’re going to end this conversation with God, because obviously we’re talking about a religion and we’re talking about Jewish spaces. There are a number of people who told me during my research they felt chosen to have a disability for God’s reasons. I ask because some of our texts—including the Unetaneh Tokef, which we read on the High Holidays—describes God as deciding people’s fates.

Dawn: Is the question did God make me deaf for a reason?

I suppose that’s one way to put it.

Dawn: That’s hard. Being deaf probably made me more of a teacher. I mean, growing up, I always heard that because I was deaf, I somehow understood more, was more aware of things. I was told, “You’re special. You’re special.” But I just wanted to be human when I was a kid. I wanted to be like everybody else.

Michelle: I don’t question God. As a teenager, I certainly said, “Why me?” But I do believe that there is a purpose and a reason. I am not sure what that is. I make the assumption that there was a purpose and God chose me, and that my purpose is to create awareness and advocate on behalf of people with disabilities. That’s why I do what I do.

Leah: I would slightly reframe the question, and the way that I think about it theologically is: Is there a divine purpose to who I am as a blind woman? What does that bring to my life? I would say I do deeply believe that there is something—the word that I like to use is “purpose.” I have a mission as a woman who is blind to be thinking about—to copy what Michelle just said, I feel very similarly that I am an advocate, that I would not be who I am if I was a sighted person. Even though when I was a kid, I also wanted to be like everybody else. I’m working on that part of my disability theology. I don’t have a neat answer, but I certainly think that there is a particular mission that I am meant to fulfill in this world.

Eric: They say you’re given things for a reason. Well, if I was given this for a reason, then I’m going to make sure that everybody can see that it’s possible to do whatever you want to do with it. So, in that regard, if that’s how it’s going to be, it’s my turn to shine.

Marie: I feel blessed. I feel blessed by a wonderful family and I have nieces and nephews and I have a boyfriend. I don’t think God chose me, but I feel blessed.

Dahlia: I’m having a really negative reaction to the question. I mean, I suppose I think God chose all of us. But no, I don’t think God chose me specifically to be this person. I think my DNA chose me, or random mutation chose me. That idea of chosenness in that way actually perpetuates that sense of other. I definitely think my short stature gave me certain gifts. I, at this point in my life, share Marie’s sense of blessing and gratitude. There are days that I’m still angry and wish to be average height. But overall, I think God charged me just like God charged every member of my community with responsibility toward creating equal community, embracing communities that seek to do good in the world.

Tali: I’m going to have to agree with Dahlia on this. I’ve had quite a journey since I was like 3 years old. Out of the four kids, I’m the one with all these weird we-can’t-figure-it-out kinds of things and, you know, people often say to me, “I don’t know anyone else who could have handled it.” Or, “I don’t know if I could do it,” or, “You know, you have such a positive attitude.” And I think to myself, “It’s not like I have a choice but to handle it.”

I just want to clarify that I’m asking the theology question in light of what Judaism teaches about God’s agency, intervention, or plan. That’s what I’m trying to get at.

Ben: I definitely have a profound sense of responsibility and mission, where I derive meaning from. But by the same token, while I actually actively do things professionally—and in my life—to advocate and push for the participation of people with disabilities, I’m not sure that I have a specified theological space for that. I have a general sense of mission.

Jason: I wouldn’t change anything about me. I guess in that way I’m glad that I was made the way I was. And I think, I have a role to play in that. But I don’t think that I was specifically chosen to be something, or to be something bigger than I am. The advocacy piece comes naturally to me because I have a disability and I see the world through a disability lens, even when I don’t want to. In that way, I’m very blessed to be me. But I don’t know that I was chosen per se—as if someone went, “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe” and picked me. But I do think there’s a purpose to having a disability, and I wouldn’t choose to live life differently, no matter how much I might struggle within it. I think everyone struggles with their life at various different times. I’m glad to be me.

Abigail Pogrebin is the author of Stars of David and My Jewish Year. She moderates the interview series “What Everyone’s Talking About” at the JCC in Manhattan.

Support Our Journalism Today

The Jewish world needs a place like Tablet where varying—even conflicting—viewpoints can exist side by side. Our times demand an engagement with big ideas and not a retreat from them.

Help us do what we do.