Re-Membering: Reflections on Disability and Pride

June 28, 2023Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler

July is Disability Pride Month. I’ve been living with disabilities for more than 20 years, but I’m just beginning to imagine being proud of my disability. The world I inhabit was not made for me; I have internalized that it’s my job to navigate it as best I can. Until very recently, being proud to be disabled seemed counterintuitive. “Disability” was the term used to represent the list of things I could no longer do: it defined me as less-than, disadvantaged, and broadcast how I was limited. “Disability” encapsulated my losses.

Thank God I have disabled friends. We share a dark sense of humor, resilience, and creativity born of necessity. They understand why writing this blog has been so hard for me: I’m deciding to come out as proud.

I became disabled in my mid-20s due to a brain aneurysm that occurred halfway through my rabbinical studies. My future suddenly changed. Congregations throughout North America said my name in their prayers for the sick. I was added to the mi shebeirachMi Shebeirachמִי שֶׁבֵּרַךְ"May the One who blessed;" a prayer often recited after a person has been honored with an aliyah; also commonly recited as a prayer for those in need of physical and/or spiritual healing. lists at synagogues in cities I never visited. My story touched people, I was the rabbinical student who miraculously survived. Less than three years later, when it came time to enter the placement process for assistant rabbinic positions, I discovered that it was much easier for a congregation to pray for my healing than to hire me.

The Jewish community had deemed me an unfit rabbi. It took over 15 years of piecing together part-time work (without benefits or the ability to support my family) before I realized it was time to pursue a different path.

I returned to graduate school in my 40s to pursue a master’s degree in counseling psychology, where my contributions would be appreciated. I had to let my dream of working full-time as a rabbi die. The realities of the rabbinate were nothing like my expectations. To be clear, my disability didn’t make full time work as a rabbi impossible; the prejudices I found within the Jewish community did.

As a therapist, the wisdom I’ve gained through my disability is respected. Many people imagine that being a therapist is similar to being a rabbi. In fact, one is the inverse of the other. Rabbinic work involves talking at people, projecting a message, and avoiding topics that are controversial or could alienate congregants. As a therapist, my job is to listen while being present, empathetic, and receptive. Like my clients, I’ve known despair, fought depression, and found ways to create meaning from my suffering. My proximate experience with mortality and the vulnerability of living with a disability strengthen my ability to empathize with those who are in pain. As a therapist, my disability is a superpower. As a rabbi, it was a liability.

There are so many like me, denied access and/or acceptance in our community. Many times, we think ourselves accessible because we build a wheelchair ramp or have large print siddurimsiddurסָדוּר"Order." Refers to the Prayer Book (i.e., the "order" of the prayers). . It’s much harder to build a community that’s sensitive to difference.

The Torah implores us to remember our history of oppression whenever we encounter injustice. Our memory is supposed to be our superpower; our empathy is supposed to define us. Perhaps we are expected to shine a light because we know what it is to be shrouded in darkness.

Have we forgotten these things?

The word “remember” signifies embodiment. To re-member is to put mind and body together, reclaiming parts of ourselves we’ve hidden or ignored. Many of us try to assimilate, altering key aspects of ourselves to fit into a world that wasn’t made for us as Jews.

As I approach the next chapter of my life, I want to be proud. I want to live, work, and pray beside others who are proud. Being proud means embracing who we are and seeing our strength.

I was lucky to attend college with a woman who embodied disability pride (she would have said disAbility): Sheryl Grossman, of blessed memory. I watched as she stared down one stumbling block only to face the next. She showed me how powerful vulnerability could be. She became a social worker, focusing on disability advocacy and creating opportunities for people to connect with one another.

After her death, a friend shared Sheryl’s favorite poem, disability activist Laura Hershey’s “You Get Proud by Practicing.” The last stanza strikes me as particularly poignant:

Just practice,
Practice until you get proud, and once you are proud,
Keep practicing so you won’t forget.

Those of us with disabilities are resilient, determined to find a way forward in the face of profound challenges. We can envision possibilities far beyond what others can imagine.

Most everyone will face disability. “Temporarily able-bodied” is a more accurate description of most people’s reality. Many who do not consider themselves “disabled” struggle with things they don’t identify as disabilities: addictions, mental health challenges, learning challenges, neurodivergence, chronic illnesses, etc.

We must find ways to create a more diverse and affirming community. How might we make space for the unique needs of our communities? What might it mean if we saw ourselves as God’s agents – using a strong hand and outstretched arm to embrace one another and raise up our differences?

May we have the courage to be proud, resisting the urge to hide our differences. May we develop empathy and advocate for justice.

To be proud is radical - it defies the idea that we’re lacking or somehow deficient.

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