Welcoming Jews with Disabilities Onto the Bimah and Beyond

June 8, 2015Cantor Aviva Marer

I wore a button-down, tea-length peach dress with shoulder pads. My mother convinced me that it looked elegant, and that the matching peach tights really completed my look. Yes, this is admittedly one of the first things I remember about my own bat mitzvah.

I also remember chanting an excessively long Torah portion, followed by an equally oppressive Haftarah. I remember feeling like I was kissing far too many strangers in the receiving line of my synagogue-catered luncheon. And above all else, I remember my leg. I remember the throbbing pain shooting up and down my leg throughout the entire experience. Not because my hideous white sling-back shoes were uncomfortable (they matched the dress, of course). No, my leg hurt for a completely different reason.

When I was 11 years old I was diagnosed with a rare hip disease called Legg-Calve-Perthes Disease (LCPD), a form of osteonecrosis of the hip found only in children. Having spent my entire fifth and sixth grade years on crutches, my doctor finally decided to perform an experimental surgery on my hip in order to delay a total joint replacement. The goal was to allow my bones to finish growing before ultimately replacing my entire hip. Unfortunately, life is not always like Grey’s Anatomy, and experimental surgeries are just that – experiments. By the time I was in seventh grade, one of my legs was significantly longer than the other, and my hip was still as fragile and painful as it had been in the past. I wore thick, custom-made orthopedic shoes and walked with a significant limp. Any of my current seventh-grade students would quickly tell you how utterly mortifying it is to not be able to wear normal shoes!

But on my bat mitzvah day, we made an exception. I wanted to look and feel normal. I remember convincing my mother that I felt totally fine in my two-inch heels even though each step felt like something was stabbing me. I remember trying to bend my right knee a little so that maybe, just maybe, my limp wouldn’t be so obvious. But most of all, I remember the fear and anxiety I felt when I saw the five steps leading up to the bimah (pulpit). Why hadn’t I thought of this before? Yes, I could walk up stairs, and in my orthopedic shoes it wasn’t even that painful. But five large bimah steps in normal shoes? This was more terrifying to me than chanting Torah.

Not one person in the sanctuary that day could have known about my anxiety regarding the steps. I imagine even my parents are surprised to read that, 20 years later, this is what I remember. But as a Reform Jewish cantor today, I can’t help but think: If these five steps were daunting for me, how must they make other people with similar or even more serious physical disabilities feel? My disability was not visible. My parents and I did absolutely everything we could to cover it up so that I could feel normal. But how many people in our communities are struggling underneath their warm smiles?

Every morning we chant a prayer that tells us eilu devarim sh’ein lahem shiur, these are the things whose worth cannot be measured. Among the long list of mitzvot (commandments) is the notion of hachnasat orchim, welcoming the stranger. We learn that we are to welcome the stranger in our midst for we were once strangers in Egypt. But what about welcoming the familiar? How often do we stop and think about what we could we doing to welcome the current members of our synagogue communities?

In the last two years, the board of my synagogue has taken a good hard look at welcoming the familiar. Together with the housing committee, we have made our entire building American with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant, with wheelchair accessible ramps up to each level of the bimah, a fully accessible restroom, and more handicapped parking spots than required by code. While all of this is impressive, we certainly didn’t stop there. Our sacred prayer space has been completely renovated and is thoughtfully designed to include everyone, with assisted listening devices, large-print prayer books, and a soon-to-be-built custom bima table with a special extension for chanting Torah from a wheelchair. We have gone above and beyond for young families, adding child-friendly chairs to our sanctuary, and offering individually wrapped snacks in our youth lounge. Most recently, we even decided to offer special accommodations for any observant Kohanim attending funerals at our synagogues.

I am incredibly proud to call this community home, and am even more proud of the fact that we will continue to assess the needs of everyone around us as we grow. I firmly believe that we must begin by welcoming those already in our midst. Only then, after building a strong sense of community from the inside, can we really be equipped to properly welcome the stranger.

In 2007, at the age of 25, doctors decided that they could no longer put off the inevitable and replaced my entire hip with a ceramic one, thereby making my legs the same length. This surgery cured me of my visible limp. Couple this with moving to a new country and all of a sudden, my very rare childhood hip disorder ceased to exist. But the truth is that I still deal with joint pain, just as anyone with an artificial joint does, although my physical pain is not as visible as it once was. As we look around at our fellow congregants, let us not assume that we know what ails one another. Instead, let us go out of our way to get to know each other and build our community from the inside out. Only then can we welcome the familiar. And only then can we welcome the stranger.

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