The Holy Privilege of Resting on Shabbat
"On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death." Exodus 35: 2
I know well how harsh the threat of death is. In January 1999, due to a Traumatic Brain Injury sustained from a car accident, I lay near death in a coma for six weeks.
After brain surgery and a month and a half in a coma, I slowly awoke, unable to do literally anything. I could not walk, talk, read, concentrate, or focus for any amount of time. Finally, after four months in the hospital, I came home with 24-hour nursing care. Years and years of intensive rehabilitation followed.
I've always been a part of the 2% of Americans who identify as Jewish. Since my accident, I've become part of a second minority: Now, I am also among the 20% of Americans with disabilities.
From my 48 years without a brain injury, I also know well how liberating it is to rest on Shabbat. But now, I understand that the concept of Shabbat rest implies that you have spent six days creating, producing, and providing – none of which I was able to do for many years following my accident and which I still struggle to do now.
Rest is different from doing nothing. The unfortunate reality, though is that "nothing" is what many people with disabilities do all week with their talents and credentials because they are denied employment and the opportunity to contribute to society in meaningful ways. According to disability advocates, the vast majority of adults with disabilities are unemployed or underemployed – not because they cannot or do not want to work, but because they are denied the opportunity to work at jobs for which they are qualified, simply on the basis of discrimination. Statistics show that such employment discrimination leads many people with disabilities to lives of poverty and significant financial struggle.
"Nothing" is also what many Jews with disabilities do in our synagogues because they find themselves shut out of participation, both physically and emotionally. Even those Jews with disabilities who are members of congregations may not necessarily be involved in synagogue life. This is due to no fault of their own. Many of these congregants need more from their synagogues than ramps and designated parking spaces. As in the general population, those in the Jewish community have a wide spectrum of disabilities, ranging from the obvious (such as the use of wheelchairs, canes, or prosthetics) to the invisible (including autism spectrum disorders, mental illness, and many others).
It's long past time for congregations to ask important questions about inclusion and accessibility that would allow Jews with disabilities to participate in Jewish life more fully. Where are our American Sign Language interpreters? Where are our Braille and large-print prayer books? How do we accommodate children with learning disabilities in religious school? How do we involve teens or adults with intellectual disabilities in congregational life? How do we include and inspire individuals on the autism spectrum? How do we meet the spiritual needs of congregants with mental health issues? Do Jews with disabilities serve on synagogue committees and the temple board? Do we urge them to volunteer?
Jews with disabilities may be affiliated with our Reform congregations, but are they active in them? It is our collective responsibility to ensure that they have the means.
Rest is a holy privilege, but one cannot rest if one does not have meaningful work to precede it. If you are able to truly rest after a week of hard work, spend your Shabbat being joyful – and spend your weekdays working to help lift Americans with disabilities out of poverty and out of Jewish anonymity.
The Torah teaches that we are created in God's image – all of us. When people with and without disabilities are given the opportunity to work all week creating, producing, and providing, then we all can truly rest.
To learn more about including Jews with disabilities in congregational life, visit www.urj.org/disabilities. To learn about legislative advocacy related to disability rights issues, visit www.rac.org/disabilities.
February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), 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.