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I Couldn't Get Comfortable at Synagogue Until I Left My Comfort Zone

I Couldn't Get Comfortable at Synagogue Until I Left My Comfort Zone

I remember the day I first entered the Temple Sinai sanctuary. At once impressed by its amphitheater-like magnificence, complete with dome ceiling and stained-glass windows, I was, at the same time, totally overwhelmed by the sizable throng of adults along with their noisy, rambunctious children attempting to settle in the pews waiting for religious school orientation to begin.

With my 7-year-old son David beside me, I maneuvered my power wheelchair through the human “sea of reeds” and found an empty spot on the aisle where David could sit and I could park alongside him, leaving enough room so that I wouldn't block the slanted pathway. While parents chattered with other parents, and children with other children, no one seemed to pay my son and me any mind. Although I must have engaged David in some kind of chit-chat (as the conscientious good mother I always tried to be), I felt my skepticism growing.

Was this really a good idea? Why did I think it was so important to give David a Jewish education and be part of a Jewish community when I never had that sense of belonging? In that moment, in that beautiful sanctuary, I was way out of my comfort zone.

Having grown up with cerebral palsy, I had the lifelong experience of being seen as “the other” by a nondisabled society. My disability was obvious: my arms and legs affected by incoordination, my speech slow and labored. Most people assumed I also had a cognitive impairment. Only when they got to know me did they realize I was pretty self-reliant and easy to understand (if the room was quiet and they exerted some patience); I also had a wicked sense of humor and could easily slaughter them in a game of Scrabble, to their chagrin!

By the time I was in my thirties, I had become a successful disability advocate, writer, peer counselor, and teacher. I had given disability-related trainings and lectures around the world to college and medical students, educators, and social service professionals.

And yet, I stayed away from Judaism, the religion and culture of my birth. The few times I ventured into a synagogue, I felt unwelcome. People stared or looked away. I never saw a warm smile or a friendly face. I always came away feeling disappointed and rejected.

Though I could make sense of the aloof reaction from society in general, I expected more from the Jewish community. Jews, of all people, knew firsthand about oppression and prejudice. Almost every Jewish holiday I’d celebrated as a child – Pesach, Hanukkah, Purim – reminded us how we struggled for our freedom and right to exist. Although the men in my family were mostly High Holidays Jews and their sons became b’nai mitzvah, Judaism was central to my family's tradition.

I remember hearing nightmarish stories about the horrors of The Holocaust from my American-born relatives, and my mother talked about the restrictions Jews faced – barred from joining social clubs, the unfair quotas limiting Jews entrance into medical schools. We were a people who championed the civil rights movement! I thought that because of our Jewish legacy, welcoming me as a Jew with a disability would be a no-brainer, but that was far from my experience. If the Jews didn't need me, I thought, certainly I didn't need them.

But then I became a parent – a Jewish mother, if you will. My husband's and my families lived 3,000 miles away, and I wanted David to learn the richness of his Jewish heritage, which led us to the Temple Sinai sanctuary that morning.

Twenty-two years later, my son has long since graduated from religious school and midrasha (high school), yet I'm still at Temple Sinai, now deeply entrenched in my synagogue community.

It's where I've learned and studied Jewish texts and values, had my bat mitzvah, served on committees, chanted Torah, and formed friendships. I've also educated our congregation about disability and access, sometimes getting into heated debates about the importance of having integrated seating in the sanctuary so those of us in wheelchairs don't stick out in the aisle like a sore thumb and can sit with people we know. I’m also adamant about the need for Braille prayer books, among other things.

I've learned that not everyone in the congregation has to accept me or be comfortable around me, just as I won't feel warm and fuzzy toward all of them. But by allowing ourselves to experience individuals who are different from us, we challenge ourselves to be better human beings. Had I given in to my temptation to return to my comfort zone that morning 22 years ago, I wouldn’t be where I am now.

Judaism teaches us the values of rachamim (compassion), chesed (kindness), tzedek (justice), and tikkun olam (bettering the world). It encourages us to venture outside our comfort zones. Inclusion gives us a chance to practice what we are taught, to go out of our comfort zones, but within the safety of our very own backyard.

Learn more about Temple Sinai's path to inclusion by watching this video, in which Denise shares more of her story.

February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide. For important resources created by top disability experts, visit the Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center, created by the Union for Reform Judaism in partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation.

Denise Sherer Jacobson is volunteer coordinator of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month events at Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA. She's the author of The Question of David: A Disabled Mother's Journey Through Adoption, Family, and Life.

Denise Sherer Jacobson
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