“No Limits” on the Jewish Disability Community
This post is part of #JDAMblogs, a series of blog posts throughout the Jewish community during the month of February in honor of Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM). #JDAMblogs is the brainchild of Lisa Friedman, who blogs at Jewish Special Needs Education: Removing the Stumbling Block. You can participate by writing your own post and linking up with Lisa.
I can still clearly recall that 6-year-old Emily was less than pleased to learn she’d be staying behind in America while my cousins became b’not mitzvah on top of Masada, an ancient desert fortress in Israel. Because I was born with a physical disability called Larsen syndrome, which my mother has as well, international travel just didn’t seem to be a practical option. Though my parents brought Judaism into our lives through attending Friday night services, celebrating holidays, and getting involved with our synagogue community, I always assumed that the chance to connect with my Jewish roots in Israel was simply out of the question. I thought it was a part of Jewish culture that would remain forever inaccessible to me.
Then, one fateful day during the summer of 2010, I happened upon something online that completely changed this perspective. On the screen in front of me was a Facebook photo album of people with whom I attended a summer camp for the physically disabled on a trip to Israel. In a tizzy of hopefulness, I did some research and discovered that an organization called Routes Travel – Amazing Israel had developed an accessible trip to Israel. This program is sponsored through Taglit-Birthright Israel, which provides 10-day trips to Israel for young Jewish adults to learn more about their roots and heritage.
I barreled into my living room to talk to my parents and declared I wanted to apply, too. In a few short months, I was accepted for a spot on the June 2011 trip, aptly named No Limits: In Motion. I was thrilled! While I eagerly prepared and reassured my parents that I would be just fine traveling 6,000 miles overseas, I realized that I was about to have an experience that I once thought would never happen.
As part of the accessibility of the trip, each participant was allowed to bring someone to help out. I chose to have my cousin, Heather, come along for the adventure, and it was, indeed, an adventure every single day. Shortly after recovering from jet lag, we went rappelling down Mt. Gilboa. Never in my wildest dreams could I have seen myself hanging off the side of a beautiful mountain in the middle of Israel. With the guidance of a volunteer from the Israeli Defense Force, I held on to the rope and prayed to make it safely to the bottom of the cliff. Let me tell you, if ever there was a time to feel connected to the power of prayer, that was it. Oh, and the wine tasting in the Golan Heights that morning probably didn’t hurt my courage, either!
Each moment of the trip, I felt like I was conquering mountains both literally and metaphorically. For anyone who ever thought my disability could hold me back, I wished they could have seen me rafting in the Jordan River, sailing on the Mediterranean Sea, and floating in the Dead Sea – all of which were some of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever done. But perhaps the two most poignant moments for me were experiences that connected Judaism and disability like never before.
Did you know the Western Wall is wheelchair accessible? Neither did I, until I rolled my wheelchair right up to the holiest Jewish site in the world. I placed a slip of paper with my prayers in the Wall, as is customary, and held my hands up to the stone, praying and meditating on the power of the moment. My pride in my religion had never been so alive.
As deeply connected to Judaism as I felt while facing the Western Wall, there is one other experience I had that meant so much to me that I almost cannot put it into words. Near the end of the trip, my group ascended to the top of Masada on a cable car. We explored the ruins and took in the most breathtaking views I have ever seen. Then we came to a spot that my cousin said looked familiar – it was the ruin where she became a Bat Mitzvah so many years earlier. Within that ruin, another Bat Mitzvah ceremony was taking place, and Heather and I heard singing as the family joyfully concluded the service. Everything had come full circle. Here I was, in a place I had once longed to be, filled with pride and the deepest love of Judaism I’d ever known.
Now, I can’t say every place we visited was 100% accessible, or even 50% accessible, but then again, that definitely can’t be said about the Untied States, either. While there is progress that must be made toward accessibility and inclusion on a global level, the No Limits: In Motion trip should serve as an ultimate role model for the amazing things that can happen when accessibility and accommodations become a priority. The trip was filled with so much joy, so many humbling learning experiences, and so many memories that I will never forget.
Most importantly, staring out at the Dead Sea from Masada was a turning point for me; Judaism and disability came together like two pieces of a puzzle for me. The fact that Taglit-Birthright Israel supported creation of a program specifically for people with disabilities, and the fact that I was welcomed to Israel with open arms just as my non-disabled peers, sent a message I’ll treasure forever: We want you here. You are just as much a part of the Jewish community as anyone else. You, like all other Jewish people, belong.
February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM), a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide. The Union for Reform Judaism is proud to partner with the Ruderman Family Foundation to ensure full inclusion and participation of people with disabilities and their families in every aspect of Reform Jewish life.