Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month

Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month (JDAIM) is a unified national initiative during the month of February to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide.

JDAIM Shabbat D'var Torah on Feb. 1, 2019 by Mara Kaplan

My son Samuel, who as many of you know has severe disabilities, usually sits right over there for Mostly Musical Shabbat. Unfortunately, he is not here tonight. There is an outbreak of influenza at his residence and they are not going out into the community until it is over.

Those of you who have been here before on Mostly Musical, know that Samuel has a big, ugly and ungainly wheelchair. But when he was six, he had a bright purple wheelchair. It was great. The handles were up high making it easy to push him. The handles created a ledge in the back for me to put things on, like his sister’s car seat. I could get them both into day care with one trip.

I could also put a grocery basket on the back enabling Samuel and I to go grocery shopping together. It is impossible to push a wheelchair and grocery cart at the same time, so this was a great design.

On a regular basis, when Samuel and I were shopping, women would stop us and make comments. It was always the women, so you men get extra points this time. One woman would say, I don’t know how you can do this, I could never do what you are doing.

“What grocery shopping with my kid. Didn’t you see the other parents here shopping with their kids.”

Then the next woman would say, “oh, he is God’s special angel” which just really made we want to barf.

Another woman would say, you are so brave. “Brave—I’m grocery shopping”

And finally, my favorite thing of all. “God only gives special children to special parents who can handle it.” Yuck!

This week’s parsha is called Mishpatim which means rules. It is a good title, because 56 of our 613 mitzvot are listed in this one parsha. One of the rules is You Shall not Oppress a Stranger, for You were once a stranger in the land of Egypt. This rule is so important it is listed 36 times in the Torah—twice in this parsha alone.

With this rule the Torah is trying to turn our memory into empathy and moral responsibility. Appealing to our experience in Egypt, the Torah seeks to transform us into people who SEE those who are vulnerable and exposed rather than looking past them.

That is what I wanted from those women in the grocery store. Not pitying. Not well meaning sympathy. I wanted them to look past Samuel’s strangerness and see that he was a beautiful, happy little boy.

They could have complimented me on his clothes and ask where I got them—that is what I do with little kids at the grocery store.

They could have commented on how I used the wheelchair. Saying they wished they could get their stroller to do that.

They could have asked where he goes to school. To understand that 5 year olds go to school and starting a conversation about it, that shows you understand.

To me their comments were oppressive.

According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks the former Chief Rabbi of UK “empathy is strongest in groups where people identify with each other: family, friends, clubs, gangs, religions or races.” The corollary to this is that the stronger the bond within the group, the sharper the suspicion and fear of those outside the group. It is easy to “love your neighbor as yourself.” It is very hard indeed to love, or even feel empathy for, a stranger.

Fear of the one-not-like-us is capable of disabling the empathy response.

But the good thing is empathy can be a learned skill.

According to emotional intelligence expert Harvey Deutschendorf, who from here we will call Harvey, because there is no way I can pronounce his name, there are things you can do to improve your ability to empathize.

First become an active listener. Talk to people. Listen to their stories. Understand where they are coming from. If those woman in the grocery store, had spent time talking to me. They would find out that bravery really doesn’t have anything to do with raising children. They would come to understand that sometimes I can handle being Samuel’s mom and other times it is just too much. They would learn that I believe that God didn’t pick Richard and I out to be Samuel’s parents, it was the luck of the draw and we do the best we can with what we’ve got—just like every other parent who is raising a child with a disability or without a disability for that matter. They would come to learn that I don’t need pity, but sometimes I need a hand or a shoulder to cry on.

Second Harvey says to challenge your prejudices and stereotypes. Push yourself beyond your comfort zone. Get to know a person who makes you feel a little uncomfortable because they are different than you and make a genuine attempt to get to know them. See how many things you can find that you have in common.

Tomorrow night, 8 of our congregants will be sharing their journey with mental health issues through stand-up comedy with us. Does bi-polar, severe depression and anxiety, or other mental health diagnosis make you uncomfortable? It does for a lot of people. I’ll bet if you come tomorrow to hear their stories, you will find things that you have in common with each of them. I’ll also bet that mental illness will feel a lot less scary at the end of the night.

Next Harvey says develop a curiosity about others. Have you ever wondered if Samuel could understand language or if he recognizes people and places? All you have to is ask. Just like you, I love to talk about my kids. I will be happy to explain to you that Samuel doesn’t understand language because he is developmentally only 6 months old. But he does recognize his favorites places and people. His caregivers often tell us that he gets excited when he realizes that they are coming into Temple. He knows this is a place that makes him happy.

February is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month. During the next 28 days, I encourage to get to know someone that has a disability, a mental health diagnosis, or is raising a child who learns and understands the world differently from you. Use these strategies of active listening, challenge your prejudice’s, asking question, spending time in others shoes and sharing yourself with others.

What you will learn is that our congregation, our community is greater because it is made up of many parts.

I will leave you with one last story. When Samuel was 5, he had a best friend named Stephen. One day, Stephen was out at the mall with his mom. They were shopping at the Hallmark Store, when a woman in an electric wheelchair came in.

Stephen left his mother’s side and went right up to the woman. The entire line gasped in shock. Stephen’s mom could feel every eye on her. Even though no one said it a loud, you could hear it clearly—you are not going to let your child talk to that stranger in a wheelchair, are you??

Stephen walked up to that woman and said. My friend Samuel’s wheelchair is cooler than yours, it’s purple. The woman in the wheelchair laughed and agreed that a purple wheelchair is pretty cool. But she wanted to know if Samuel’s wheelchair could do this. And spun her chair in a 360. Stephen agreed that an electric chair was cooler than Samuel’s manual chair.

Stephen and the woman had a good talk and enjoyed each other’s company for the few minutes of waiting in a Hallmark Store line. I would like to think that the other people in that line learned something about empathy from Stephen.

During this month, may we all learn to accept the stranger and include them in our community. We will all be richer for it.

Shabbat Shalom.


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