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Getting to the Bimah in a Wheelchair

Getting to the Bimah in a Wheelchair

Steep staircase

The bimah is the heart of a temple's sanctuary – a gathering place for life cycle events, the focus of our High Holiday worship rituals, and the site that draws us together when we seek comfort from pain.

In 2007, I was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis. In my case, it has lived up to its name, and has progressively weakened my body from the waist down, leaving me wheelchair bound. With the loss of my mobility, I also lost the ability to be called for an aliyah, to see the open Torah scroll, to participate in Selichot services, and to join with family and friends for birthday and anniversary blessings. For those of us unable to be on the bimah because of a physical disability, it is easy to feel left out of the Jewish community.

Fortunately for me, at my synagogue, which is my second home, I no longer have to feel left out. 

In 2014, Temple Emanu-El in Edison, NJ, installed a ramp to the bimah. With the assistance of my wife, Therese, I can now ascend in my wheelchair, once again making it possible for me to be called for aliyot on the High Holidays and participate in the Havdalah service that is part of our Selichot celebration. The temple also added a Torah-reading table with a pop-out extension that brings the Torah to eye-level so it can be read by someone in a wheelchair.

That year, it was a special honor to see the Torah before my eyes during the High Holidays. And sure, it was nerve-wracking to say the Torah blessings alone, but that was something I could not have imagined doing even one year earlier. Best of all, the new ramp and Torah-reading table mean that I – and anyone with a physical disability – can participate in all services in our congregation.

As my disease has progressed, my ability to go places has decreased. With the exception of a few friends and relatives, I can't visit at others’ homes as I used to. Some businesses, stores, and even doctor's offices take advantage of being “grandfathered” under the law requiring facility updates to allow access to those with special needs.

Making the temple accessible has not been an easy task, but I am fortunate to be a part of a community where accessibility and inclusion are priorities. Updates to the handicap bathroom, new wheelchair-friendly entrance doors, and a new HVAC system that is sure to please everyone – not just those of us with disabilities! – are other improvements in which the temple has invested in recent years.

Although I always hope to attend temple weekly, some days are tougher than others and I often have to consider the weather and how I am feeling. So when I’m up to going, it’s nice to know I won’t have any issues getting into or around the temple. It is very comforting to know that my temple is committed to making it possible for everyone in the community to be included in every possible way.

Sheldon Jaffe and his family have been members of Temple Emanu-El in Edison, NJ, since 1989. He and his wife, Therese, reside in Metuchen, NJ, where they raised two daughters.

Sheldon Jaffe
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